10 questions with Wendy Ulrich

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Wendy Ulrich is the author of Live Up to Our Privileges: Women, Power and Priesthood (Deseret Book, 2019).

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your new book, Live Up to Our Privileges: Women, Power and Priesthood?

A few years ago I was asked to consider giving a talk about women and priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have long been interested in this topic, but I am a psychologist by profession—not an historian or doctrinal expert. So I was frankly hesitant.

However, I wanted to communicate my conviction to those of the next generation who may struggle with this issue as my generation did that “there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made” (Mosiah 7:18). And frankly, figuring out a few more pieces of the puzzle of what it might mean for women to have priesthood power is of great personal relevance as well.

I decided to take on the talk, and I learned enough doing so that I wanted more.

How do women exercise priesthood power and live up to our privileges in that regard?

How do men?

What can we learn from each other?

What led you to pursue a career in psychology? How has it helped you in writing this book?

I was a young mother with a husband in graduate school when I started thinking about pursuing further graduate work as well—something I had never even imagined during my undergraduate days. I had an MBA from UCLA and was considering two options for a PhD: organizational behavior or psychology.

I really struggled about which direction to go. One day I was reading a book about career decisions that included the question, “What would you do with your life if you were not afraid to fail?”

I immediately knew I would be a psychologist.

As I pondered my sudden certainty I recognized that the clincher for me was, “If you were not afraid to fail.” A Pandora’s Box of fears unexpectedly opened up around my own inadequacies, the potential impact on my children, the enormity of the world’s needs. But I also concluded that it would be pretty foolish to spend many years preparing for a career I only chose because I didn’t care enough about it to mind if I failed at it.

The relevance to this book is that I had been reading a lot at that time about women in the early history of the Church—women who exercised, among other things, the gift of healing. I felt a great longing for that gift, a longing that became even more pronounced as I thought in earnest about pursuing psychology. I realized that Christ healed in many ways, and I assumed the Lord could help me to do so as well.

In a particularly earnest prayer, I promised the Lord I would do my best to prepare professionally to be a healing influence in others’ lives if He would bless my efforts. I don’t know how successfully I have exercised the gift of healing in others’ lives, but I do know the Lord has blessed me with healing of many kinds as I have worked in this profession. I also know healing of many kinds is needed.

My decision was confirmed when I had a long talk that evening with a friend who was hurting. She called the next day to tell me she had slept through the night for the first time in weeks.

It felt like a message of confirmation that healing gifts are not just reserved for those with a certain priesthood office.

What are some common perspectives you see from women as it relates to their relationship with the priesthood?

Some women in the Church assume priesthood is something men have that they aren’t especially interested in. Perhaps they feel like they have plenty to do without adding some kind of priesthood responsibility to the list. Perhaps they are nervous about looking disloyal or being presumptuous and want to be crystal clear that they support what they assume is the will of the Lord in this matter.

Some women are convinced that women will never be full and equal partners in the Church unless they are ordained to the priesthood as men are. They may assume God would want it that way as well, and would make that clear if current leaders sought His will on this matter with more open minds.

Some women take at face value comments from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles about women having priesthood authority or priesthood power, but they are not sure what that looks like in a practical way. They may notice aspects of the temple that seem to suggest as much, however, and they want to better understand and fulfill their role.

Our language about priesthood meeting, priesthood quorums, or priesthood sessions of general conference—all exclusively for men—may further confuse the issue. They too may be nervous about being seen as power hungry or unsupportive of male priesthood holders if they discuss women’s relationship to priesthood. They are also willing to participate more fully in the work of the Lord and receive the blessings that come from that service and understanding as it becomes clearer what that means.

I personally have concluded that the privilege of participating in the Lord’s work with authority and power is gender-neutral.

What is a definition of priesthood that ‘clarifies what men have and women do not’?

To be honest, I’ve never really found such a definition. The common definition of a priest is someone authorized to perform the religious rites of a religion, and by that definition LDS women serving in the temple are priests.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated at general conference in 2014 that women who perform any priesthood task under the direction of one holding priesthood keys do so with priesthood authority.

Elder M. Russell Ballard has further stated that men and women are both endowed with priesthood power.

Early apostle Orson Hyde equated priesthood with governance, but women function in many governance and leadership roles in the Church just as men do, including over mixed-sex groups like Primary children and teachers.

Other apostles have equated priesthood with the power of God to create, resurrect, and redeem, which gives priesthood a much grander scope than mere earthly ritual or administration, but Doctrine and Covenants 138:38-39 and 55-56 strongly suggests that women were among those chosen as leaders in the premortal world, and Abraham 3:22-24 uses the similar language to describe those who assisted in the work of creation, implying that women were involved there as well.

I’ve concluded that we could probably define priesthood, paraphrasing the definition given by Joseph F. Smith, as the authority and power of God delegated to men and women to do God’s work in the earth for the salvation and exaltation of the human family.

What is the difference between priesthood power and priesthood authority?

Authority is a kind of formal permission to build the kingdom of God in the earth. Authority can be given by the laying on of hands when a person is ordained or set apart to a calling. It can also be given through an assignment, like a ministering assignment or the assignment to give a talk. It can be given by written document, such as a temple recommend that authorizes a person to attend the temple and officiate in ordinances there. Authority implies that the Lord has given us His permission to act in His name to build His kingdom and do His work.

If the authority of the priesthood is like the bank of a river that contains and directs the river’s flow, the power of the priesthood is like the rushing, life-giving water that allows life to grow and flourish in and around it.

This brings to mind the description of the water to come from the altar of the house of the Lord in the last days, creating a mighty river that heals the Dead Sea and creates a seedbed for trees of life to grow up on either side, trees that yield fruit and leaves year round to feed the world and heal the nations (see Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 23).

The Dead Sea, by David Shankbone. Ezekiel prophesies a river of water will flow from under the temple in Jerusalem and heal the Dead Sea.

I suspect we are these trees of life the Lord has planted and nourished with a mighty river of life-giving power from the temple. Once we become fruitful enough to feed and heal the world, we also produce seeds of faith for others to plant, nourished by the river of life-giving power from God.

How does understanding the nature of God’s character help someone approach this topic?

If we think priesthood and the power of godliness are only available to men, we can wonder if God is fair. In the Lectures on Faith we learn that one of the essential attributes of God is justice or fairness, and that we could not have faith in Him if he were not fair.

Obviously we are not all the same, and there are countless injustices and inequities in this life. But ultimately we must have confidence that He loves us all, will treat us fairly, and will make up to us the injustices we experience here.

When it comes to priesthood, I don’t fully understand why men and women are given different slightly different ways to participate in God’s work in the earth for the salvation of the human family.

But given the importance of children and of raising the next generation, it seems reasonable that women as a whole be given some extra flexibility in the work of God so they can bear, give birth, and feed that next generation, while men are given the responsibility of protecting women and children with their very lives.

In a similar way, we don’t eat female sheep or cattle because that would be like eating our seed corn. The Law of Moses occasionally calls for the sacrifice of a heifer or a ewe, but giving up a female of the herd was a far greater sacrifice.

Both men and women covenant to offer their very lives if called upon in the defense and sustenance of the kingdom of God. But we may make those sacrifices in different ways. We need assurance that God is fair in both what He expects and what He protects.

How are the promises Joseph Smith gave the Relief Society similar to those of the oath and covenant of the priesthood?

In my mind they aren’t similar, they are identical. Doctrine and Covenants 84:18-26, describes the Aaronic Priesthood as holding the keys of the ministering of angels, and the Melchizedek Priesthood as holding the keys of entering the presence of God.

Joseph Smith said to the women of the first Relief Society organization that if they lived up to their privileges, angels could not be restrained from being their associates, and that they could come into the presence of God. He offered them the highest blessings associated by oath and covenant from the Lord with those who obtain these two priesthoods (v. 33). 

The Relief Society was organized in 1842 on the second floor of the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo, Illinois. Credit: John Hamer.

What are one or two insights about the priesthood that personally enriched you as you researched this book?

One of the first things to impress me was the realization that worldly power and godly power are very different, which is why it isn’t self-serving or inappropriate in any way to seek godly power.

Worldly power is about amassing resources; godly power is about distributing them.

Worldly power is about command and control; godly power is about influence and persuasion.

Worldly power is about getting others to do what you want; godly power is about helping others get what they want.

God has sent us to earth to help us grow in godly power. He wants to empower us with all that He has and is and to teach us to similarly empower others. In our theology that desire and ability is central to His identity, and ours.

Ironically, God apparently teaches us the skills of power and the ability to empower others in large measure by giving us experience with weakness, vulnerability, and powerlessness.

That’s striking!

We leave our heavenly home – where we have access to the presence of God, an understanding of His plans and purposes, and apparently enough knowledge to participate in the very creation of the earth – and we come here barely able to manage our own bodies, having to learn from scratch to see, to speak, to move, even to think.

God “gives” us this weakness (Ether 12:27) with a specific intention: that we may be made strong, qualifying to sit down with Him in the mansions above (v. 37) and receive as joint-heirs with Christ all that God has (D&C 84:36-38).

There seems to be something in our experience with weakness that is essential to the kind of power God is trying to embed in us.

Tell us about the approach you take in analyzing the different priesthood offices.

A fascinating detail about the mortal life of Jesus Christ is that He was not born into the correct lineage to hold the priesthood as defined in His day. He did not function as a priest in the temple and held no priesthood position of authority or power as then understood. Yet He participated in extremely meaningful ways in all of the work of the offices of the priesthood as we understand them today.

In perhaps a similar way, women today do not hold priesthood office, but we too participate in the work of those offices in many ways.

If priesthood offices embody the work of God in the earth, then I thought it would be helpful to look at ways that Jesus did that work even without having the priesthood as people then understood it, and to see if women might also participate in the work each of those offices entail.

I began to realize that not only do women participate in that work but women may give us our first experiences with how God’s work feels and looks. Women are usually our first deacons, teachers, and ritual creators. The covenant status of our mother may allow us to come into this world “born in the covenant” and sealed to our parents, our mother in essence acting in the role of a sealer for her offspring.

There are so many ways that women participate in the work of God in the earth for the salvation of the human family. I tried to explore some of the low-hanging fruit of how women participate in the work implied by these offices, but I know there is much more to understand.

What are some helpful and unhelpful ways for men and women to discuss the priesthood?

I’m increasingly impressed with the many men I know who seem to be as concerned as women are that women not feel secondary in the work of the Lord, or overly prescribed in their participation in it. Most men I associate with in the Church are eager to participate in the life of the family, and eager to have women as full partners in the work of the priesthood. They want to know how to convey more fully to the rising generation of youth and young adults what the work of men and women is in the priesthood.

That makes me believe we are ready as a people for more.

I hope we can talk together about how we all can grow in priesthood power to complete whatever the work is we have personally been authorized to do in building the kingdom of God.

For example, the work we do together in councils is the governance work of the priesthood. The work we do together in temples is a major part of the ritual or ordinance work of the priesthood. The work we do in feeding people and helping them feed themselves, in teaching the gospel, in creating community, in being confirmed with the gifts of the Holy Ghost, in sealing eternal families—all of this and more is the work of both men and women as we participate in God’s work of saving the human family.

As we listen to each other with compassion and curiosity and speak up with honesty and good will, neither dominating nor staying silent, we can come to the unity required in all Church councils.

If you could go back in time and spend a day with any woman from your religious history, who would you most want to visit?

I might choose Zina D. H. Young. She was the third general Relief Society president of the Church, from 1888 until her death in 1901.

Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young was an American social activist and religious leader who served as the third general president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1888 until her death. Credit: Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association. This image is in the public domain in the United States because its copyright has expired.

It is crazy to me to realize my Grandma Mattie was born when Eliza R. Snow was still president of the Relief Society, and that Grandma was 12 before Zina Young died.

As to the day I would want to spend with Zina, it would be when she and Eliza R. Snow came to Alpine, Utah, where I now live, to reorganize the Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Society there.

My great grandmother, age 13 at the time, was set apart as the secretary and she and each new officer were given blessings by Eliza R. Snow in tongues, Zina giving the interpretation through the laying on of hands.

I wonder what it was like for Zina to learn from Eliza and others, how she developed her own spiritual gifts, and how they tried to help the next generation of young women to desire and trust in those gifts.

I wonder what it was like for those young women. I wonder how they all understood what they were doing, what they would think of us today, and where we might be going next in building the kingdom of God on earth.

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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