A guest post by Emily Jensen
“Mormon teens to have greater opportunities for temple service in 2018” reads the Deseret News title to the article introducing changes to the way Young Men and Young Women participate in baptisms for the dead in the temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And while technically true, the changes outlined highlight the huge discrepancy between what the young men of 16 and older can do as ordained priests, and what the young women can do. To put it simply, or as a Salt Lake Tribune article described, I am “especially incensed” about it.
Now Young Men who have the rank of “priest” in the Aaronic priesthood can serve by baptizing their peers 12 and older on behalf of those who are dead. They can also serve as witnesses, officially deeming whether the ordinance was done correctly.
This is a remarkable change, considering that for years, we have understood that these temple ordinances were to be performed only by those ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood. The change now matches what can be done outside of temples, where priests are able to baptize their peers and siblings, often to great spiritual uplift for everyone involved.
What do the Young Women get? They will be able to help with towels or to check in patrons. This is really no change as I would guess many young women had opportunities to do this before.
Besides the change highlighting how little women, young and old, are allowed to do in our most holy of spaces — spaces that many in the church believe are designed for complete equality in priesthood empowerment in both men and women — this brings up the question of if they decided to make a change this important for the men, was the idea of allowing women to witness again even considered?
I say “again” here because there’s important historical and scriptural precedent. Women have served as official witnesses in both recent Mormon history and early Mormon history. Historian Benjamin Park describes how in 1840, “Vienna Jaques was mounted on a horse when she witnessed Mormonism’s first vicarious baptism,” and how women in early church history helped shape the ordinances we hold dear today.
In the above Salt Lake Tribune article, historian Ardis Parshall describes how women used to serve as official ordinance witnesses in the temple until the 1950s, when Joseph Fielding Smith, later to become church prophet, said it was no longer “proper” to do so. No other explanation was given. (See here for Parshall's response to yesterday's announcement.)
In a column from last year, Jana Riess both describes a more recent example of women witnessing -- that of Camilla Kimball, wife of church president Spencer W. Kimball, officially witnessing a baptism in India in 1961 -- as well as describes the scriptural references to women witnessing. She explains:
“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.”
This reminds me of another New Testament story, one where Jesus is teaching in the home of Mary and Martha. As told in Luke 10, Martha is doing the menial work and complains to Christ that her sister is not helping. Jesus gently rebukes her, saying “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
If church leaders could consider the “needfulness” of allowing women to restore the good part of being able to witness in ordinances, young women could be spiritually empowered right alongside the young men.
I would hope that church leaders understand how ironic it is to be a woman in this church: We made a covenant at baptism to stand as a witness, and then repeated this mantra “To stand as a witness at all times, in all things, and in all places” every week as young women. And then we are not actually given space to do so.
There is not any reason why women are forbidden to officially witness besides some interpretation of the masculine pronouns found in various Doctrine and Covenants sections (see D&C 128) and the current church handbook requiring that witnesses be Melchizedek Priesthood holders (see Handbook 2: 20.3.7).
But policies have been changed before, like when the rule that missionaries had to be elders was changed to allow for sister missionaries to preach early in our history. That happened even though there was distinct scriptural evidence throughout the Doctrine and Covenants for preaching and missionary work to be done by priesthood holders. Can you imagine the preaching power we would be missing if women were not allowed to be missionaries?
One final point. With this non-change for young women, we are continuing to teach our young women that their voices are not as credible as their young men counterparts. In a day and age where society is learning to not discount the witnesses of women, I wish Mormons could do so in our most spiritual of settings, the temple.
- Can Mormon women be witnesses to priesthood ordinances?
- Mormon young women and priesthood: "Change the rhetoric or change the rules," says guest blogger
- Mormon feminists mark 40 years of women speaking up and speaking out