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19th Century Latter-day Saint History Theology

What’s the Relationship Between Women and the Priesthood?

Joseph Smith famously “turned the key” during a Nauvoo Relief Society Meeting, but it’s unclear precisely what he meant. Church leaders have since taught different things about priesthood keys, authority, and power.

The relationship between Latter-day Saint women and the priesthood is complex. Joseph Smith famously “turned the key” during a Nauvoo Relief Society Meeting, but it’s unclear precisely what he meant. Church leaders have since taught different things about priesthood keys, authority, and power. Despite a surge of new prophetic teachings, the role of women and the priesthood remains an open question. In this interview, Lisa Olsen Tait explains the history of women and priesthood in the church.


Read the article by Lisa Olsen Tait, “What Is Women’s Relationship to Priesthood?” in BYU Studies Quarterly.


Table of contents


What would you say to a person today who reads that Emma Smith was to be “ordained” (D&C 25:7)?

This was very early in the Restoration. Terms that now have very definite meanings for us were often used more broadly. To “ordain” something or someone, in the usage of Joseph Smith’s day and even now, could mean simply to appoint them for a particular purpose.

Its reality and power are greater than anything we can grasp.

Over time, this term came to mean specifically that someone had been given priesthood authority and office, and since priesthood is conferred only upon men in the church, “ordain” came to mean giving priesthood to men.

It certainly meant that in 1830, but not only that.

What “ordain” meant to Emma Smith

This revelation to Emma Smith is only the first time the term “ordain” is applied to her. Later, when the Nauvoo Relief Society was organized on March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith said that the presidency would be ordained “to preside over the Society” and that they would do so, “just as the Presidency, preside over the church.”

He also spoke of officers in the Society being “appointed and set apart.” Note that the terms “ordain,” “appoint,” and “set apart” are used in this setting—seemingly interchangeably.

At that meeting, Joseph said that Emma had been ordained:

at the time the revelation was given, to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of the community.

While we have no record of it, this statement suggests that Emma did receive a formal blessing of some kind in 1830, probably under the hands of Joseph.

Because of this prior “ordination,” Emma was not specifically ordained as president of the Relief Society that day, but John Taylor, acting at Joseph’s direction, laid his hands on her head and “confirm’d upon her all the blessings which have been confer’d on her.” He also laid hands on her counselors, Elizabeth Ann Whitney and Sarah Cleveland, and “ordained” them to their offices.

These terms and actions implicitly invoke authority that originated in the priesthood, but there is no indication that anyone present that day understood the women to have had priesthood conferred upon them in the same sense that men received it.

John Taylor clarifies what happened in Nauvoo

Almost forty years later, when those terms had begun to take on more settled definitions in relation to priesthood, John Taylor felt it necessary to clarify what had happened in Nauvoo. This was on the occasion of establishing the first formal general presidency of the Relief Society in June 1880.

After reviewing the records from 1842, Taylor explained, “The ordination then given did not mean the confering of the Priesthood upon those sisters,” and Eliza R. Snow and Bathsheba Smith affirmed that this had always been their understanding.

And then Taylor proceeded to use both “ordain” and “set apart” in blessing Eliza R. Snow and her counselors, showing that the usage was still evolving.


What did Joseph Smith mean when he said to the Relief Society in 1842 that he would “turn the key to you in the name of God”?

Great question. To some extent, we don’t know because he did not elaborate. He made this statement in his April 28, 1842, sermon to the Relief Society, which is the time when he spoke most intensely of priesthood and temple.

On that occasion he “spoke of delivering the keys to this Society and to the Church” and said that “the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them…as well as to the Elders.” Likewise, his statement that he “turn[ed] the key” to the sisters (or perhaps to the Relief Society as a whole) came as he talked about getting “instruction thro’ the order which God has established” and that “knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.”

Keys was an important term for Joseph Smith, and he used it in many senses (as explained in this essay). These statements seem to refer to the temple and the additional light and power that would be revealed there. He spoke similarly of a connection between the “keys of the kingdom” and the temple in a public discourse given just days later.

Over time, Latter-day Saint women themselves came to understand the statement about turning the key as meaning that Joseph Smith had opened the way for them to receive light and knowledge from heaven—not only in the eternities and in the temple, but in this life and in society at large.

As Emmeline Wells said at the Relief Society Jubilee in 1892, the Relief Society was founded by a prophet of God fifty years earlier, and now “woman is being emancipated from error and superstition and darkness.” The light of the Gospel has made woman free, Wells declared, “the key of knowledge has been turned, and she has drank inspiration at the divine fountain.”

In other words, the entire movement for women’s rights could be traced back to Joseph Smith’s turning of the “key,” which had opened up channels of light and knowledge to work upon the world for women’s emancipation. This idea became very common in the discourse of Latter-day Saint women well into the twentieth century.


How do we know that D&C 131:1-2 also refers to women?

This is an excerpt from teachings Joseph Smith gave to a few associates at the home of Benjamin and Melissa Johnson on May 16, 1843.

On that occasion he also taught:

Except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity, while in this probation; by the power and authority of the Holy Priesthood; they will cease to increase when they die, that is, that they will not have any children after the resurrection; but those who are married by the power and authority of the Priesthood in this life, and continue without committing the sin against the Holy Ghost, will continue to increase and have children in the celestial glory.

“History, 1838–1856, volume D-1 [1 August 1842–1 July 1843],” p. 1551, The Joseph Smith Papers.

By this time, Joseph had begun introducing the sealing ordinance (along with plural marriage) to a few of his closest associates. And almost exactly one year earlier, he had administered the first endowments to nine men.

Lisa Olsen Tait and Matthew J. Grow talk about early Latter-day Saint polygamy.

“The Quorum”

He and Emma would be sealed shortly after this occasion, and in September 1843 the men and women who had received temple ordinances from Joseph were organized into a quorum. Members referred to the group by names such as as the “council,” the “quorum,” or “the priesthood,” and they met together in “prayer meetings” to pray and to receive instruction and to receive temple ordinances from Joseph Smith.

While participants did not record much detail about their understanding of these developments, it seems clear that they saw themselves as participating in the priesthood of the temple (see Doctrine and Covenants 124:42), and by receiving the sealing ordinance, as Joseph explained to the Johnsons, they entered into an “order of the priesthood.” This order required husbands and wives; thus, in this sense, “the priesthood” included women.

After Joseph Smith’s death, when the temple had been completed to the point that Brigham Young and the Twelve began administering temple ordinances to the Saints generally, the members of the Quorum became the first temple ordinance workers, so to speak, as they shared the blessings and ceremonies of the temple with others. At this point, the Quorum mostly ceased to function except for prayer.


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How did the calling of sister missionaries change the perception of women and the priesthood?

I don’t know that it changed perceptions of women’s relationship to the priesthood as much as it changed perceptions about what women could contribute to the work of the church. As Matt McBride’s excellent article about the first young, single sister missionaries shows, male leaders took pains to make it clear that women did not have priesthood authority even though they received a call and commission to serve that was otherwise parallel to what men received.

At times, the male missionaries tried to relegate “lady missionaries” to domestic service or office chores instead of “real” missionary work, and mission presidents had to put the kibosh on that.

The sisters found that they had to navigate a very male-defined space. Those women, and generations who have followed, demonstrated clearly that they could be effective messengers and representatives for the Church even without being ordained to the priesthood.


How did the connection between temple and priesthood evolve over time as it relates to women and the priesthood?

The revelation commanding the Saints to build the temple (Section 124) repeatedly spoke of it in terms of priesthood. “Therein are the keys of the holy priesthood ordained,” it said. In the House of the Lord the “fulness of the priesthood” would be restored. The Lord would show Joseph “all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof” (D&C 124:28, 34, 42, emphasis mine).

Joseph Smith’s teachings about the temple, as we saw in the discussion of the Relief Society above, were permeated with language about priesthood. The temple was understood to be the ultimate site and expression of priesthood.

1840s definition of “priesthood”

Now, we have to understand that their definition of priesthood was much less abstract than ours has come to be. In the article, I call it the “collective sense” of priesthood—that is, priesthood requires priests and priestesses.

Those who have made covenants and received ordinances are the priesthood. (Think of “priesthood” in the same sense as “motherhood” or “fatherhood.”) And “the priesthood” is the order of the celestial kingdom. In this sense, we are the priesthood—we are of the order of the Son of God (see Alma 13).

This “priesthood of the temple” did not create or bestow ecclesiastical office to act in the church, but that ecclesiastical meaning and function of priesthood continued—and expanded—throughout the nineteenth century even as the understanding of a connection between priesthood and temple lingered.

Franklin D. Richards makes a qualified claim in 1888

This gave rise to an expression that women held the priesthood “in connection with their husbands” or that they held “a portion of the priesthood.”

In 1888, for example, Elder Franklin D. Richards insisted:

Our sisters share with us any and all of the ordinances of the holy anointing, endowments, sealings, sanctifications and blessings that we have been made partakers of.

“Is it possible,” Richards continued, “that we have the holy priesthood and our wives have none of it?”

All such assertions made a positive claim—women had “priesthood”—alongside a qualification of the claim—“a portion of” or “in connection with.”

The question that went begging, of course, was if women did have some “portion of” or “connection to” the priesthood, what did it mean?

What authority did it give them?

What did it enable them to do?

No one really had an answer other than insisting that women did not have authority to exercise any priesthood functions or offices on par with men.

Meanwhile, women’s organizations became firmly established within the church, and women held visible positions of authority within them. Everyone agreed that this was not “priesthood” in the same sense as men’s offices, but they also affirmed that the ultimate source of women’s authority was the male priesthood—the Relief Society had been organized by Joseph Smith, and women leaders continued to be called and set apart by bishops and stake presidents.

Priesthood reform movement at the turn of the century

Around the turn of the century, Joseph F. Smith initiated a priesthood reform movement seeking to better define, organize, and codify priesthood functions and offices throughout the church.

He formulated and taught a definition of priesthood as “the power of God delegated to man by which man can act in the earth for the salvation of the human family”—a more abstract definition of priesthood than the collective sense understood by earlier generations.

The ecclesiastical sense of priesthood became even more ascendant. Smith adamantly insisted that women did not “hold the priesthood in connection with their husbands.” Instead, they jointly enjoyed all the blessings of the priesthood—the implication being that those blessings were ultimately realized through temple ordinances.

Thus, the collective sense of priesthood was obscured, and priesthood became something separate from the people who held it. Now it was understood that ecclesiastical priesthood authorized and enabled the work of the temple, and the sense that the temple was a place where priesthood “happened” faded.


Was the inclusion of healing ordinances in the temple the basis of women beginning to perform healing blessings?

No. Early Latter-day Saints understood the gift of healing as one of the “gifts of the gospel” available to all believers through faith in Jesus Christ. Anyone could lay on hands and invoke faith in Jesus to exercise this gift. And in this time before modern medicine it’s not hard to understand how, for women, spiritual healing became an extension of the nursing and caregiving they were already doing.

At the same time, the New Testament (reiterated in Doctrine and Covenants 42) did speak of calling for the elders to anoint and bless the sick, so there was a sense that administering to the sick was connected to the priesthood.

These understandings—and a fascinating diversity of practices related to ritual healing—existed side by side into the twentieth century when, once again, the priesthood reform movement (and other cultural dynamics) served to prioritize healing as a priesthood ordinance and discourage women’s participation in healing rituals.1


Did Joseph Smith view temples as a place of healing?

In regard to the temple, Joseph Smith envisioned the temple as a site for physical healing through spiritual channels, and by the time of his death ordinances of baptism for health and washing and anointing for healing, as well as laying on hands to bless the sick, had all been established as temple functions.


How did healing ordinances evolve in Utah temples?

When the Saints built temples in Utah, these healing ordinances were incorporated prominently into the temple liturgy. Both female and male temple workers administered to the sick in the temple. Temples even designated days when people could come to seek healing.2

In the early twentieth century, Latter-day Saints began to do temple work for their ancestors in vastly increasing numbers, putting pressure on the temples to accommodate the demand for vicarious ordinances.

This led President Heber J. Grant and Elder George F. Richards (who was president of the Salt Lake Temple), in council with other church leaders, to reconsider what belonged in the temple and what did not.

They decided that healing rituals were just as efficacious when performed outside the temple and discontinued that function, releasing those who had been set apart to administer to the sick in the temple.

By this time, the priesthood reform movement had already begun to prioritize priesthood administration to the sick and tacitly discourage women’s ritual healing.

The removal of women as healers in the temple did not entirely end the practice of women administering to the sick, but it was certainly part of the process of discouraging it. The practice of washing and anointing pregnant women before childbirth held on into the thirties and forties, but by mid-century even Relief Society leaders were advising women to seek blessings from the priesthood, and the living memory of women’s participation in ritual healing faded quickly.


Why did women let go of ritual healing?

Beyond tracing the thread of authoritative statements and prescriptions about healing and priesthood, it’s important to recognize how much the world changed in the first decades of the twentieth century and what that meant for the sites of medical care and changes in people’s sensibilities about how healing occurred.

This was the era when the “modern” world came into being, and Latter-day Saints embraced it. In general, they began to view the charismatic practices of their grandparents’ generation as old-fashioned and out of keeping with the modern world. They still believed in spiritual power, to be sure, but how that was manifested came to look quite different than it had in pioneer times.

In this light, women seem to have let go of the practice of ritual healing as their sensibilities changed. It’s a very complex story.


Did Eliza R. Snow believe that the temple endowment gave women authority to bless the sick?

Eliza R. Snow was a prolific practitioner of charismatic spiritual practices. She laid on hands to bless the sick, to prophesy, and to offer blessings of comfort and counsel to countless people—primarily, but not only, other women and children.

After she was commissioned by Brigham Young in 1867 to reorganize the Relief Society throughout the church, she spent the rest of her life teaching, exhorting, and administering to women in many ways:

  • Recorder. Eliza had been the secretary of the Nauvoo Relief Society and had recorded (and then preserved) the minutes.
  • Witness. She had been there in person on April 28, 1842, and other occasions when Joseph Smith spoke powerfully to women about priesthood, the temple, and spiritual power.
  • Participant. She was an early participant in temple ordinances and the first woman to preside over women’s work in the Endowment House.
  • Leader. Then, of course, she became the recognized leader of women’s work and organizations throughout the church in the last two decades of her life.

Because of all these experiences, Eliza thought a lot about authority and priesthood and the temple—and women’s position within it all. Her discourses contain all kinds of powerful teachings and expressions of her ideas, which could change over time.

Historian Lisa Olsen Tait says that Eliza R. Snow thought a lot about women and the priesthood. Image credit: Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

Throughout this period, both male and female leaders expressed confidence that women could anoint with oil and lay on hands to bless the sick, but they were careful to clarify that women and men who did not hold the priesthood should do so only in the name of Jesus by virtue of their faith, without invoking any priesthood authority.

Eliza herself taught this:

Women can administer in the name of Jesus but not by virtue of the Priesthood. The promise which Jesus made was to all not to either sex.

Morgan Utah Stake, Relief Society Minutes and Records, April 28, 1883 (punctuation added).

In 1884, she wrote a circular letter to Relief Society leaders in which she asserted that:

Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have the right, but should feel it a duty, whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances, which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons.”

This statement seemed to imply that the endowment gave women authority to administer healing ordinances, and the First Presidency felt it necessary to meet with Sister Snow and correct her views.

It does not seem to have been a particularly heated or prolonged controversy—Eliza was always deferential to priesthood leaders—but it does demonstrate the lingering sense of a connection between temple and priesthood (or perhaps simply spiritual power and authority) alongside the growing impulse to carefully define priesthood and non-priesthood functions.


What was the priesthood reform movement—and what did it have to do with women and the priesthood?

As I said above, the priesthood reform movement served to diminish the sense that women had any direct claim or connection to priesthood in their own right and instead established the understanding that women did not hold the priesthood, but they shared in all its blessings. This formulation has remained remarkably stable for over a century.

Now, culturally, I think we have to acknowledge that the strong emphasis on priesthood—especially priesthood as the governing, administrative power in the church—meant that there was a lot of emphasis on men and boys, with both implicit and explicit implication that women were subordinate and less favored.

And this was happening at the time when the first wave of the women’s movement in the United States was achieving its greatest victory in the passage of woman suffrage. Trying to make sense of these complexities, Susa Young Gates and her daughter, Leah D. Widtsoe, formulated the idea that men have priesthood and women have motherhood. That is, women couldn’t possibly do all the priesthood things because motherhood is so all-consuming.

That idea—and it has taken on a life of its own with lots of attempts to elaborate it—is one of the longest-lasting products of the priesthood reform era. I think it’s helpful to know where it came from.


What other developments about women and the priesthood came out of the priesthood reform movement?

A couple of other important developments that came out of the priesthood reform movement had to do with women’s leadership and organizations.

From the turn of the century well past the 1950s, the Relief Society, the Young Women’s organization, and the Primary grew and developed extensive structures of leadership, teaching, and service for women in the church. This was important because it gave women recognized authority and visibility within their sphere.

At the same time, priesthood reform insisted that “auxiliaries” were subordinate to the priesthood and had to operate subject to priesthood lines of authority—an imperative that would only gain steam in the mid-century Correlation movement.

Even so, I think it is important that women’s organizations (and therefore women’s leadership and service) were always considered integral parts of the church, not separate entities of questionable status. I believe this traces back to the fact that Joseph Smith himself organized and commissioned the Relief Society. That established a line of transmission that is still operative.


What is significant about Elder Oaks’ 2014 general conference talk, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood” in the context of women and the priesthood?

Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke at a time when there was a lot of energy around questions about women and priesthood in (and out of) the church. In his inimitable style, he sought to systematically lay out the answers.

In his talk he distinguished between priesthood keys, authority, power, and blessings and established that women have been given authority to function within the church.

Then he said this:

We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be?

He continued, “Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority in performing her or his assigned duties.”

Elder Dallin H. Oaks differentiates between priesthood keys, power, and authority in “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood.”

Previously, church leaders had taught that women had authority but not priesthood. In fact, he quoted from a talk by President Joseph Fielding Smith in which he made this distinction. Smith asserted that “authority and priesthood are two different things.”

Elder Oaks’s statements directly revised this understanding: all authority in the church comes from the priesthood, therefore all authority is priesthood in some sense.

This opened up the possibility of a more direct relationship between women and priesthood. While women are not ordained to offices and don’t hold keys, they do exercise priesthood authority in their callings. This understanding has become influential in other church leaders’ teachings since then.


How do you think President Nelson’s declaration that “The Restoration is a process” relate to women and the priesthood?

I can only answer this question on a personal level. I don’t know that I believe there is, for lack of a better word, a platonic ideal of priesthood that we are moving ever closer toward—except insofar as the ultimate embodiment of priesthood is the Lord himself, and we are seeking to know and become like Him.

I believe that priesthood is a vast, capacious thing—its reality and power are greater than anything we can grasp in this mortal realm. That being the case, it is something like the proverbial blind men and the elephant. At different times there are different aspects or expressions of priesthood that are needed.

As the world changes and presents us with different problems and opportunities, we need our understanding and application of priesthood to adapt and apply accordingly. That’s not to say there isn’t a core, stable reality of priesthood as power and authority from God. But how that power and authority is administered, channeled, applied—we have already seen that change over time, and I believe that will continue.

Of course, since priesthood power and authority come from God, the adaptations and applications need to be inspired by him through revelation to those who hold the keys.

What all of that means for women and priesthood, I would hesitate to say.

I am a historian—I am much better at telling you what has happened in the past than what might happen in the future. But I hope my work will provide a basis for understanding where we have been as we move forward.


About the author

Lisa Olsen Tait is a Latter-day Saint historian with expertise in women’s history and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her article on the relationship between women and the priesthood can be seen in a special issue of BYU Studies called “Yet to Be Revealed: Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Theology.” Tait is a general editor of Saints and is currently working on a biography of Susa Young Gates.


Further reading

Yet to Be Revealed interviews

Women and the priesthood resources

Sources

  1. For the full story of the development of Latter-day Saint healing practices and the trajectory of women’s ritual healing, the work of Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright is indispensable: see here, here, and here.
  2. This collection of sketches of female temple workers from 1893 demonstrates how central the work of healing was to their understanding of the temple.

By Jerry Winder

History geek. Seeker of truth. Believer.

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