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Softening Mormon patriarchy, one correction at a time

The LDS Church's addendum to a 1973 'Ensign' article about patriarchy shows some progress in how it conceives of women's roles — and in how it acknowledges the mistakes of its own past.

A man walks past the Salt Lake Temple at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Sept. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

(RNS) — Last week on social media, someone posted an interesting screenshot of an article from the Church’s official magazine, the “Ensign,” from 1973.

The interesting part was not the article itself (though it’s quite entertaining, as you will see below), but the editorial comment that the Church’s website is now running at the top of the article.

“Articles in the magazines archive may reflect practices and language of an earlier time,” the editors tell us. “More current messages from the magazines on the relationship between husbands and wives include ‘Spiritual Treasures’ and ‘Achieving Oneness in Marriage.’ See also ‘Marriage’ in Gospel Topics.”

The unattributed correction (emendation? collective “our bad”?) is dated from this month, January 2022.

I want to say how much I appreciate the effort. And of course, it made me want to read the article in its entirety to find out what was so objectionable.

The article, “Strengthening the Patriarchal Order in the Home” by Brent A. Barlow, is about what you would expect from an era when the Church was getting deep into the Afraids about second-wave feminism. By 1975, it would take an official stand against the Equal Rights Amendment (something two-thirds of Utahns had previously supported), and in the February 1973 “Ensign” issue of which this article was a part, you can definitely sense the shift underway.

Screengrab

Screengrab

Barlow, the author of the article, was big into rhetorical questions. “Should two people preside over each other in a marriage, particularly when one holds the priesthood and has been divinely designated to preside?” he asked.

Short answer: No. That would be chaos! Men, step up and be the lords and masters God designed you to be!

And there’s this:

“By strengthening the patriarchal order in Latter-day Saint homes, not only will the husband-wife relationship be enhanced, but the parent-child relationship will improve as well. When a wife challenges the right of her husband to officiate in the home, is it not a logical consequence that the children will challenge that right also?”

Short answer: Why, yes, it is! The article makes clear that once a wife stands up to her husband, it’s going to be utter lawlessness. Dogs and cats will start living together and probably do drugs. Children will rebel against their parents and may even grow their hair long. In short, lots of terrible ills will befall society should the womenfolk get uppity and start making decisions for themselves. The article quotes an “expert” male doctor who warns that “as woman challenges the authority of man, so youth challenges the authority of the family and all other related social institutions.”

When the article in the “Ensign” was written in 1973, Barlow was in his early 30s, and it was before he became a teacher of marriage and family at BYU. Through the intervening years, he has written many books with Deseret Book, including “What Husbands Expect of Wives” and “What Wives Expect of Husbands,” and a regular column on marriage for the Deseret News.

In short, he became a recognized expert on this topic, but a) he was not yet recognized as such when he wrote the 1973 article and b) he was never a general authority of the Church.

Both of those facts are relevant when we consider the relative difficulty of the Church’s new mea culpa. It’s much easier for the Church to downplay and redirect when the author of now-discarded advice was not believed to be speaking for God. The “Ensign” was a major vehicle for communicating the Church’s positions in the 1970s, but it wasn’t the pulpit of the General Conference.

I did a spot-check on other “Ensign” articles from the 1970s and didn’t see any others that had been redacted by modern editors, though some could use that treatment (the 1971 “Special Lamanite Section” comes to mind). If you’re aware of others, please let me know.

In other words, I’m not sure if this correction is a one-off or the beginning of a more mature relationship with our own history. I hope it’s the latter. Considering how important many Latter-day Saints claim our own history to be, there is a kind of historylessness that arises whenever things get uncomfortable. What I mean by that is that some people assert the Church never changes despite abundant evidence that it does, or they even go to great lengths to hide the reality of those changes.

What the Church has done here feels right. They’re not trying to hide this article or pretend it never happened. It’s still up there on the website in all its misogynistic disgrace. It’s an acknowledged part of history, a period piece from the 1970s that can be gently derided along with lava lamps, orange shag carpets and cheese fondue. (Actually, let’s keep fondue because fondue is delicious. We’re in your debt, 1970s.)

However, it’s also clear the Church wants it known this is no longer its take on gender roles. (It has moved from full-on patriarchy to “chicken patriarchy.” This is the kinder, gentler version that places women on a pedestal and claims they’re actually better than men … so naturally good, in fact, they shouldn’t be sullied by giving them any actual, you know, power.) Yesterday’s patriarchy is not today’s.

One last thing about change. In my recent interviews with people who have left the LDS Church, I’ve been struck by how many of them are simultaneously frustrated with the Church’s inability to change and bewildered when the Church does in fact change.

It’s fascinating. But it’s also predictable, given the narrative they were raised with that said the Church is supposed to be the same yesterday, today and forever, that prophets can never be wrong, that God will not allow the Church to ever make a mistake.

That’s a false and dangerous narrative, whether we’re talking about a person or an institution. People can be wrong, and so can institutions. Mormonism has a beautiful repentance process for individuals when we screw up. We confess, we apologize to the people we’ve hurt, and then we go forward and sin no more (John 8:11). But where the Church itself is concerned, Latter-day Saints have had no shared vocabulary to acknowledge, let alone apologize for, the things the Church has gotten wrong.

And that’s bizarre, especially considering that Latter-day Saints believe this church is a “true and living” institution. Living organisms, as opposed to dead relics, change all the time. They adapt to their environments, and they affect their environments in turn.

Only the dead do not change.

Let’s keep our Church among the living.


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