Power from on High
by Gregory A. Prince

Chapter 8.
Women and Priesthood

[p.201]The changing relationship between women and organized religion is one of the most hotly debated and potentially divisive religious issues of our time. Among Christian traditions some, such as Anglican and United Methodist, have extended to women full participation, including priesthood ordination, while others, notably Roman Catholic, have continued to limit women’s ecclesiastical role and specifically exclude them from ordination to priesthood.

Recent works have served to highlight the intensity of the debate within the Latter-day Saint tradition.1 Unlike other Christian traditions, whose debates encircle questions of biblical interpretation, the LDS discussion has relied almost exclusively on Restoration sources, which include the LDS canon and non-canonical historical materials. Because of the unique role of Joseph Smith in producing virtually all of the LDS canon and in shaping early doctrinal and procedural matters, an understanding of the roles of women during his life is an essential part of contemporary debate.

Smith never explicitly confirmed or denied the possibility of women assuming a role equal to that of men at all levels of church ministry and administration. However, in the course of his ministry women gradually began to do things which today are generally associated with priesthood.

For the first five years following organization of the church in 1830, there is no record of women exercising priesthood-like functions.2 In 1835, when patriarchal blessings were first given to general [p.202]church members, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, wife of Kirtland Bishop Newel K. Whitney, was promised, “When thy husband is far from thee and thy little ones are afflicted thou shalt have power to prevail and they shall be healed.”3 Similar promises were made to other women, including Sarah Mackley in 1836,4 Flora Jacobs in 1837,5 and Susan Johnson6 and Louisa C. Jackson7 in 1844. Of 131 blessings surveyed between 1835 and 1844, 9 percent of those given to women contained specific promises of power to heal the sick, compared to 12 percent of those given to men.

Authorization to heal also came in other ways. At about the time of the dedication of the Kirtland House of the Lord, Louisa Leavitt lay ill. Not having resources to pay a physician, her mother “prayed earnestly to the Lord to let us know what we should do. There was an angel stood by my bed to answer my prayer. He told me to call Louisa up and lay my hands upon her head and in the name of Jesus Christ, administer to her and she should recover.”8

Two years later, in the aftermath of the Haun’s Mill Massacre, [p.203]Polly Wood took the initiative to heal a wounded survivor, apparently in the absence of specific authorization:

A little after sunset I saw Sister Polly Wood. I motioned for her to come to me. I could not call her neither could I stand up. She came and tried to lead me back, but I was too weak. She then kneeled down and placed her hands on my wounds and prayed the Lord to strengthen and heal me. I never heard a more powerful prayer. The Lord answered her prayer and I received strength and walked back to Haun’s house by resting three or four times. I had bled so much that my blood would hardly stain a white handkerchief.9

Following organization of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society in March 1842, members of the society took the initiative in administering to women. In the fifth meeting,

Mrs. Durfee bore testimony to the great blessings she received when administered to after the close of the last meeting, by Prest. E[mma]. Smith & Councillors [Sarah] Cleveland and [Elizabeth Ann] Whitney. she said she never realized more benefit thro’ any administration—that she was heal’d, and thought the sisters had more faith than the brethren.10

Durfee’s enthusiasm was not universally shared, and in the next meeting of the society Joseph Smith, responding to those who claimed “that some persons were not going right in laying hands on the sick,” explicitly endorsed their actions, stating, “If the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”11

Another area in which women seemed to function in a priesthood capacity came about 1843 when women were first included in the endowment.12 Since 1836 the elders had been washed and anointed to prepare for the endowment. Once women were included in the [p.204]endowment, they too required this preparatory ordinance. Because the washing was literal rather than merely symbolic and involved being bathed in a bathtub,13 women were called on to administer this ordinance to other women. For example, Heber C. Kimball wrote, “my wife Vilate and menny feemales was recieved in to the Holy Order, and was washed and inointed by Emma [Smith].”14

While it is instructive to examine the areas in which women came to function in a manner analogous to male priesthood officers, it is also essential to emphasize that most activities associated with priesthood were never extended to women during Smith’s lifetime. For example, there is no evidence that during that period they performed ordinations. Even though Emma Smith was “ordained” president of the Female Relief Society,15 as were her two counselors, men performed the ordinations. Although women administered to the sick by laying on hands, they never performed the ordinance of baptism for healing. Not only did women not serve as missionaries, but an 1835 meeting of the Kirtland high council ruled that “it is not advisable for any Elder to take wife with him on a mission to preach.”16 Nor did women baptize, confer the Holy Ghost, administer the sacrament, bless babies, curse, cast out devils, endow, seal, or marry.

Thus, if one examines the historical record it becomes apparent that from a functional point of view, there was a gradual trend towards inclusion of women in activities associated with priesthood which had previously been denied to them. Yet this trend never included more than a small minority of priesthood activities. What about a theoretical point of view? Does the historical record provide useful clues as to the direction Smith may have been heading regarding women and priesthood?

There is no record that Smith ever stated or implied that women would eventually be ordained to the same priesthood as men. Neither, however, did he indicate that such ordination was not possible. There is abundant evidence, both from Smith and from other contemporary [p.205]church leaders, that a trend of gradual ecclesiastical empowerment of women was anticipated, though perhaps not to full parity with men. Most statements suggesting increased female empowerment carried caveats.

The earliest indication of a changing role for women was the patriarchal blessing. The promise of healing power for women occurred as early as September 1835, and similar promises occurred in blessings given throughout the remainder of Smith’s life.17 Although no such blessings are known to have been given by Smith himself, they were given by his father and his uncle, both in the capacity of presiding patriarch. Smith’s 1842 endorsement of female healings indicates that he was aware of such promises and was sympathetic.

The most dramatic change occurred with the organization of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society in 1842. Although women had acted independently to propose formation of a society, Smith reacted to their proposal by initiating one of his own design. Since there is no record of his having considered such an organization prior to the women’s suggestion, it appears that his plans for it came together quickly and that they were patterned after the society he knew best, namely the priesthood. In the opening meeting he described the presiding body the society would choose and instructed them to function in a manner parallel to that of their priesthood counterpart, to “preside just as the [First] Presidency, preside over the church.”18 Carrying the priesthood analogy further, he stated, “If any Officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c. are among us.”19 Although a case could be made that this sounds like a priesthood organization for women, such a claim is not supported by subsequent records. Neither Smith nor the members of the society gave any indication that it was part of, or a replica of, the male priesthood. Smith’s suggestion that the society have [p.206]deacons and teachers, “if any Officers are wanted,” was never acted upon. Had the society been meant to be a priesthood of women, then a parallel structure would probably have been assumed. Even Smith’s statement in a society meeting two weeks later that “he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of Priests as in Enoch’s day”20 appears figurative, inasmuch as it was not succeeded by a structure similar to the Holy Order of Melchizedek.

What is clear from the society minutes is that Smith intended women to exercise more fully the gifts of the spirit and to use the society to gain knowledge and intelligence. For instance, his endorsement of female healings on 28 April 1842 was preceded by Sarah Cleveland’s statement that “the Prophet had given us liberty to improve the gifts of the gospel in our meetings.”21 He then admonished “this Society to get instruction thro’ the order which God has established.”22

To expedite the acquisition of knowledge, Smith gave the members of the society “keys”:

He spoke of delivering the keys to this Society and to the Church … that the keys of the kingdom are about to be given to them, that they may be able to detect every thing false–as well as to the Elders… .

I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.23

While one might interpret this passage as signalling the emergence of a female priesthood, a careful reading indicates that the keys were to “unlock” barriers to knowledge and intelligence. In the absence of evidence demonstrating subsequent movement towards a parallel priesthood, one cannot be sure of the intent.

Certainly Nauvoo’s other male leaders did not envision a separate female priesthood. In a society meeting in May 1842 Bishop Newel K. Whitney told the women:

In the beginning God created man male and female and bestow’d [p.207]upon man certain blessings peculiar to a man of God, of which woman partook, so that without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth–it takes all to restore the Priesthood. It is the intent of the Society, by humility and faithfulness, [to do so] in connexion with those husbands that are found worthy.24

A notion of “shared priesthood” gained momentum after the endowment was extended to women the following year,25 particularly in patriarchal blessings to women. Four such blessings, one given by Hyrum Smith and the others by John Smith, went well beyond any previous blessings in linking women and priesthood, yet all carried the caveat that such empowerment was necessarily linked to the priesthood of the husband:

16 October 1843: “You shall be endowed with power, as far as ministrations and priesthood was ordained to be given unto man, and unto their help mate.”26

18 January 1844: “Thou shalt have that portion of the Priesthood in thy companion that he holds.”27

January 1844: “Thou art a Daughter of Abraham, through the loins of Manassah and a lawful heir to the Priesthood in common with thy companion.”28

6 February 1844: “Thou art of the blood of Abraham through the Loins of [p.208]Manasseh and a lawful heir to the Priesthood & shall possess it in common with thy companion.”29

As intriguing as these blessings are, there is no record of Smith’s concurrence, and his death only a few months later, coupled with the resulting confusion, hindered further development of the subject by his successors.

One must consider the possibility that the absence of any proscription against ordaining women stemmed not from tacit approval of the possibility of a female priesthood but from near-universal acceptance of the status quo. For instance, Apostle Parley P. Pratt wrote to a non-Mormon publication to respond to an erroneous report as follows: “The piece further states that ‘a woman preacher appointed a meeting at New Salem, Ohio, and in the meeting read and repeated copious extracts from the Book of Mormon.’ Now it is a fact well known, that we have not had a female preacher in our connection, for we do not believe in a female priesthood.”30

In summary, no definitive evidence exists indicating that Smith intended to ordain women to the same priesthood as men. Nor did he proscribe such a possibility. Some data exist to bolster claims that women should be ordained, yet other data support an opposite claim. One is reminded of Joseph Smith’s description of his early quest to discern which church he should join: “The teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passage of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible” (JS-H 2:12, in PGP).

This is not to say that current dialogue concerning the ecclesiastical status of women is either unimportant or insoluble. To the contrary, it appears to be one of the crucial issues facing the contemporary church. Its ultimate resolution, however, will likely occur through a [p.209]combination of sensitivity to the historical record both during and after Smith’s ministry, consideration of the world in which we now live, and deference to the decisive role available to the sitting president of the church to draw upon sources beyond himself for understanding.



1. For example, see Maxine Hanks, ed., Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992).

2. On the eve of the opening of the School of the Prophets in January 1833, members of both sexes exercised the gift of speaking in tongues. See Joseph Smith, “History,” Times and Seasons 5 (1 Dec. 1844): 723.

3. Patriarchal blessing to Elizabeth Ann Whitney by Joseph Smith, Sr., 14 Sept. 1835, Irene Bates Collection, Library-Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri.

4. “When [thy husband] is gone to fill his mission thou shall have faith to rebuke illnesses in thy family.” Patriarchal blessing to Sarah Mackley by Joseph Smith, Sr., 14 May 1836, Bates Collection.

5. “Thou shall have authority to lay thy hands on thy children when the Elders cannot be had and they shall recover[;] diseases shall stand rebuked.” Patriarchal blessing to Flora Jacobs by Joseph Smith, Sr., 13 June 1837, Bates Collection.

6. “Thou shalt have that portion of the Priesthood in thy companion that he holds, and power to drive the destroyer from thy house when thy companion is not present to assist thee.” Patriarchal blessing to Susan Johnson by John Smith, 18 Jan. 1844, Bates Collection.

7. “Thou shalt have power to heal the sick in their own houses.” Patriarchal blessing to Louisa C. Jackson by John Smith, 6 Feb. 1844, Bates Collection.

8. Sarah Sturdevant Leavitt, “Autobiographical Sketch,” in Kate B. Carter, ed., Our Pioneer Heritage (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1964), 7:244.

9. Nathan K. Knight account, in Journal History, 30 Oct. 1838, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter LDS archives).

10. “Nauvoo Female Relief Society Minutes,” 19 Apr. 1842, LDS archives.

11. Ibid., 28 Apr. 1842.

12. It should be noted that while Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, occasionally gave blessings other than for healing (see Caroline Barnes Crosby Journal and Autobiography, 1807-82, Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City), a more general exercise of this activity by women was not demonstrated.

13. Stanley B. Kimball, ed., On the Potter’s Wheel: The Diaries of Heber C. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1987), 165-66, 8 Dec. 1845.

14. Ibid., “Strange Events,” 56, 20 Jan. 1844.

15. “Nauvoo Female Relief Society Minutes,” 17 Mar. 1842.

16. “Kirtland Council Minutes,” 19 Aug. 1835.

17. There is no record indicating the circumstances surrounding such promises. While it is possible that Patriarchs giving the blessings were influenced directly by Smith’s theological development, the absence of pre-1840s sources linking Smith with female healings suggests that the promises came through patriarchs in the course of giving the blessings rather than through environmental influence. Within the LDS tradition, such a process is termed “inspiration.”

18. “Nauvoo Female Relief Society Minutes,” 17 Mar. 1842.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., 30 Mar. 1842.

21. Ibid., 19 Apr. 1842. The gift of speaking in tongues was “improved” during this meeting. Nine days later Smith reacted to an apparent overzealousness on the part of the women, telling them not to “indulge too much in the gift of tongues” (ibid., 28 Apr. 1842).

22. Ibid., 28 Apr. 1842.

23. Ibid., emphasis added.

24. Ibid., 27 May 1842.

25. D. Michael Quinn has recently argued that women were given Melchizedek Priesthood as part of the endowment (Quinn, “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood Since 1843,” in Hanks, 365-409). While it is clear that the concept and structure of priesthood continued to develop throughout Smith’s ministry, and that gradual inclusion of women in some aspects of priesthood function occurred, Quinn’s conclusion that “every endowed Mormon woman has received the Melchizedek priesthood” (375) is an overstatement. For example, Quinn is confident that the “keys” given to women of the Female Relief Society in 1842 were “priesthood ‘keys'” (374) despite the ambiguity of Smith’s statement. Quinn does not reconcile the discrepancy between women holding Melchizedek Priesthood while not performing most of the functions requiring priesthood authority. He claims that “ordained offices are not the priesthood but only appendages to the priesthood” (375), citing DC, 1921 84:29-30, when, in fact, at the time this revelation was given the concept of priesthood did not exist

26. Patriarchal blessing to Ann Eliza DeLong by Hyrum Smith, Bates Collection.

27. Patriarchal blessing to Susan Johnson by John Smith, Bates Collection.

28. Patriarchal blessing to Susannah Bigler by John Smith, Bates Collection.

29. Patriarchal blessing to Louisa C. Jackson by John Smith, Bates Collection.

30. Parley P. Pratt to Editor of the New Era, in Times and Seasons 1 (Jan. 1840): 46.