Can Mormon women be witnesses to priesthood ordinances?

This month’s issue of the Ensign offers a touching account of how Camilla Kimball, wife of Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball, acted as an official witness when her husband performed a baptism for a new convert in India. The convert, Mangal Dan Dipty, recalls:

Then in January 1961, Elder Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited Delhi. I spent three days traveling with him to the Taj Mahal at Agra and to Dharamsala. I was like a sponge soaking up all the gospel lessons he taught. On the final day of his visit, I was ready for baptism. On January 7, 1961, I was baptized by Elder Kimball in the Yamuna River; Sister Kimball was the official witness, though there were many curious onlookers. I was confirmed that evening.

I’m glad this story is in the Ensign; it’s a step forward for the Church’s flagship magazine to acknowledge that despite Mormonism’s most recent history of not allowing women to serve as official witnesses to priesthood ordinances, for much of LDS history they did—as well as heal the sick, prophesy, speak in tongues, and exhibit spiritual gifts.

And yet I’m sure there will be denials from all corners, along the lines of, “Well, that was only because it was an emergency situation and there were no other priesthood holders around.”

Such arguments constitute the Hail Mary pass of Mormonism: the idea that women are only qualified to serve in the most desperate situations when there are no men available for the job.

Yet when we’re looking at this and other examples of women’s authority in the LDS Church, it almost doesn’t matter what Mormon women in the nineteenth century did or did not do.

That’s because we are a Restorationist church that believes in restoring the New Testament church—the one that Jesus himself founded. So let’s take a look at what that looks like.

The Savior, despite having many other options, chose women to be the first witnesses to the most important priesthood ordinance of all: his resurrection. Not the Twelve disciples, but the women. Women are present in all four of the Gospels, standing at the cross and then, on Sunday morning, venturing out in the dark to anoint his body for burial. Only they do not find a body:

The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:5-11)

It was women that first apprehended the good news—and it was men, in this account at least, who did not believe their testimony. (Except for Peter, who at least hustled to the tomb to see for himself.)

In the context of the first century, Jesus made an indefensible choice in selecting women to be his resurrection witnesses. As New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has put it, “If someone in the first century had wanted to invent a story about people seeing Jesus, they wouldn’t have dreamed of giving the star part to a woman.” Women couldn’t even be witnesses in a court of law.

Yet Jesus chose them.

This story is worth bearing in mind as Mormons grapple in the twenty-first century with the roles of women as leaders in the LDS Church. Jesus chose women. Would we?

I’ve written before on this blog that I’m a supporter of women’s priesthood ordination: full-on equality of leadership between men and women in the Church.

But I am also a realist, and I am well aware that such a radical transformation is about as likely as the [insert your most implausible sports team here] winning the [insert your coveted championship here]. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.

What is going to happen is what we are already seeing: the incremental changes in women’s visibility and leadership that have occurred over the last several years, as chronicled by Peggy Fletcher Stack this week in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Allowing women as witnesses to priesthood ordinances could be one of those incremental changes, accomplished by a simple policy change.

As Julie Smith wrote in 2013, the practice doesn’t require any major shifts in Mormon doctrine:

What is interesting about the women-as-witnesses proposal is that it is theologically easy–no major doctrinal upheaval needed, no priesthood ordination needed, and traditionalists can assert that the practice is grounded in both scripture and the complementary-but-not-identical nature of men and women.

Extending the privilege of serving as official witnesses to priesthood ordinances such as blessings, temple sealings, and baptisms would send women the message that the Church isn’t just talking the talk when it says that we are as vital in the administration of the priesthood as men are.

Comments

  1. Another example from Church History that hints that it was fine even when it wasn’t legal for women to be witnesses. Back in September 1840, Vienna Jacques witnessed the first recorded baptism for the dead. Scholar Alexander Baugh wrote: “It is not known precisely when the first proxy baptism or baptisms were performed, however, the first documented baptism for the dead was performed on 12 September 1840. On that occasion Jane Neyman requested that Harvey Olmstead baptize her in behalf of her deceased son Cyrus Livingston Neyman. Vienna Jacques witnessed the proxy baptism by riding into the Mississippi River on horseback to hear and observe the ceremony. A short while later, upon learning the words Olmstead used in performing the baptism, Joseph Smith gave his approval of the ordinance.” See here for source: http://mormonhistoricsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/MHS3.1Spring2002Baugh.pdf

  2. Trust me they are all making it up as they go. Giving women the priesthood isn’t much more than allowing you to play make believe together.

  3. Thomas Aquinas said that Mary Magdalene was called as “The Apostle to the Apostles”. In this manner we can say that women can be “ordained to be a witness” as was Matthias; Acts 1:22.

  4. “Well, that was only because it was an emergency situation and there were no other priesthood holders around.”
    This is a perfectly legitimate reason if you understand the order within the church that is followed. For example, when an entire Bishopric is absent for a Sacrament meeting the High Priest Group leader presides and conducts. Women can assist in giving blessings of healing when no other priesthood holders are present. They have already been performing priesthood ordinances in the Temple for decades. Unless through revelation there is a change in the order that is followed, it will always be this way.

  5. Is resurrection a priesthood ordinance?

  6. My great grand mother was the ward clerk in Southern Utah. Didn’t alarm anybody back then.

  7. From everything I can tell from my exposure to Mormonism, the chief task of a Mormon woman is to pump out bodies for the spirit children and help her husband become a god with his own planet, where he will be free to canoodle with spirit wives.

    That issue being settled, did Spencer Kimball baptize the Indian chap before or after Kimball had the convenient revelation that dark skin was not a curse from Jehovah?
    Remember Kimball’s knee-slapper of a statement back in 1960 about how little Lamanites who had been wrested from their homes by Mormons turned whiter shades of pale:

    “I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today … they are fast becoming a white and delightsome people…. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised…. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.”

    Weird how the Mormon oligarchy is now saying, in their “okay – we confess most of these rumors about us and Joseph Smith are true” articles, that Mormon racism was the product of Brigham Young’s time, not official Mormon doctrine. You’d think Spencer Kimball, as prophet, seer and revelator, would have know that. And yet he had to have himself a well-timed revelation (all sorts of pressure was coming down on the Mormons at the time) that the curse of darkness had been lifted.

  8. Jana – I don’t know why there would be confusion here. The duties of the priesthood are divided into priesthood rights and priesthood responsibilities. For example, the priesthood has the right to bless the sacrament, and non-priesthood holders are not authorized to do that; same with performing baptisms, presiding over a sacrament meeting, setting apart teachers, etc. But when it comes to priesthood responsibilities, those are things the priesthood has a responsibility to do, but that duty is not exclusive. For example, teaching, home teaching, family history, missionary work, temple work, etc. Being a witness to a priesthood ordinance is a responsibility but not a right. Moreover, there are many priesthood ordinances that require the participation of multiple individuals. While the ordinance is conducted by a presiding priesthood holder, that priesthood holder may delegate individual tasks to non-priesthood holders as he deems appropriate, including designating a non-priesthood holder to serve as a witness at a baptism. But in that particular example, as is usually the case, the best option (for a number of reasons) is to have the priesthood perform priesthood responsibilities whenever they are present and able, and only delegate these responsibilities to others when there is a lack of priesthood holders. But it is up to the presiding authority

    There are a thousand examples of this in the Church.

  9. Deborah was a prophetess. Women at the temple can perform many ordinances for other women as the Melchizedek Priesthood delegates the authority. Women speaking in tongues and other such things is not as far-fetched or “sensational” as the author would have you believe. These were common occurrences in the early Church. Where is the evidence that they held the priesthood though? The Catholic Church is corrupt so that’s not an acceptable response to my question.

  10. He didn’t have the Priesthood nor the prophetic mantle to correctly interpret scripture for the Church. There is no authority from God in the Catholic Church. Nice people but no authority.

  11. Exactly. It’s not as far-fetched as many want it to be. Sorry, folks, it isn’t that sexy. It’s just truth.

  12. Yes, the delegation of authority. Women assist other women for numerous temple ordinances.

  13. In HB1 16.1.10 the witness qualifications for ordinances for which records have been lost are set forth and none of these specify that a female witness testimony is not authorized. Young women recite weekly that they will “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places” this should include ordinances. This article is just trying to show the inequality in qualifying female witnesses for the washing and anointing ordinances performed in the temple, while at the same time disqualifying women for standing as official witnesses in baptisms (washing with water) ordinances performed in a font in a consecrated chapel. HB2 sec 20.3.7 If as JS said, “all priesthood is melchizedek” then why is an ordained Priestess authorized to witness washing in a temple but not baptism in a chapel? She is the primary witness to live birth when the water of her uterus broke, she should be an authorized witness to spiritual rebirth as well.

  14. watch for presentism here, and don’t forget to mail a thank you card to Athanasius for his 39th festal letter. As pertains to authority, what corpus of restorationist commentary on the Ur-Evangelium throws greater light on the correct interpretation of what constitutes “the church” , “throughout all ages” in Ephesians 3:21? As for scriptural interpretation – the exegesis “credit score” is held down by huge mistakes and views of darkness in the past on understanding 2Nephi26:33, and Galatians3:27-29. Just read the first presidency correspondence with Lowry Nelson.

  15. I don’t think you can just throw away commentary by Heber C Kimball on Dec 13, 1857 by labeling it “catholic” when he said that, “Mary was of the Royal Priesthood, which is after the order of God;”

  16. In your first scenario, the High Priest Group leader presides because he is – literally – the presiding priesthood holder. That’s not an “emergency situation”.

    I am interested in the documentation for “Women can assist in giving blessings of healing when no other priesthood holders are present”. Handbook 2, Chapter 20 clearly states otherwise – “Only brethren who hold the necessary priesthood and are worthy may perform an ordinance or blessing or stand in the circle.”
    And unless you are suggesting Temples have been in a constant state of emergency for decades, that example does not apply either.
    The “emergency situation” argument is just a bad argument. The truth is we Mormons sometimes cling so hard to unnecessary tradition, we would put the residents of Anatevka to shame.

  17. It’s a mystery to me why women can’t be clerks now.

  18. What happened to the RSS feed? It used to be Flunking Sainthood specific – which was great. I loved getting the feed. Recently, it had broadened in scope to include all sorts of content from RNS. It’s overwhelming and the content I care to subscribe to is getting drowned out… so much so that I just unsubscribed. Thoughts?

  19. In the Fellowship we follow Smith’s teachings of women as priesthood holders with a Relief Society that is a sisterhood of priestesses. Not only can women witness but they can baptize. Mothers are more than just faces in the crowd.

  20. One correction here. As far as we know, nobody witnessed a priesthood ordination of Christ’s resurrection. That would be like me waiting in the hallway while my sister was baptized, then claiming I witnessed her baptism because I saw her come out of the bathroom with wet hair.

    Women were the first to see Him AFTER His resurrection had already occurred. They did not see it happen. So, they were NOT witnesses to a priesthood ordinance.

  21. Shouldn’t this be covered in cultnews.com and not religionnews.com?

  22. I love how this is all set up with the red herring “And yet I’m sure there will be denials,” when there has been none. Paranoid much?

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