Strangers in Paradox
by Margaret & Paul Toscano

Chapter Sixteen
A Kingdom of Priestesses

[p.179]Because for Mormons priesthood is indispensable, its inception has long been viewed as the most important aspect of the Mormon movement. Each May the church commemorates John the Baptist’s restoration of the Aaronic priesthood and Peter, James, and John’s restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood to Joseph Smith and others. However, little if anything is ever said about the bestowal of the fullness of the priesthood “by the hand of Elijah the prophet.”1 It appears that this priesthood still remains a mystery to most Mormons who connect Elijah’s mission only with genealogy, vicarious ordinances for the dead, and temple sealings. In our view the priesthood restored by Elijah has a much more extensive significance for the LDS church. In the early years of Mormonism, when the leadership was struggling to define the nature, scope, and levels of priesthood and its relationship to callings and spiritual gifts, little was said about Elijah and the fullness of the priesthood. After 1836, however, the fullness of the priesthood concept began to emerge.2 In the 1840s and especially during Joseph [p.180]Smith’s last two years, he seems to have been preoccupied by this subject.3

Church historical documents show that on 4 May 1842 Joseph “communicated” the keys of the fullness of priesthood to nine men by means of an “endowment.”4 On 5 May 1842 these men “communicated” to Joseph the same keys.5 Eventually Joseph organized these newly [p.181]endowed men into a group known by various names: the “holy order,” the “quorum of the priesthood,” the “quorum of the anointing,” the “first quorum,” the “council pertaining to the high priesthood,” and the “ancient order.” Most commonly, however, this group was simply referred to by the shortened title of “the quorum.”

More than a year passed before any other members were added. Then on the morning of 28 September 1843, five additional men were endowed. In the evening of the same day, Joseph Smith “was by common consent & unanimous voice chosen president of the Quorum & anointed & ordained to the highest order of the priesthood (& Companion—d[itt]o”) (Faulring, 416; Ehat, 94-95; Quinn 1978, 85).

One of the most significant aspects of this event is contained in the parenthetical: “(& Companion-d[itt]o).” This refers to the fact that a woman—believed to be Emma Smith (Ehat, 95)—received the fullness of the priesthood through the temple ordinances. At some time prior to 28 September 1843 Emma had been endowed with the fullness of the keys of the priesthood. Then on that date she was anointed a “queen and priestess” and became a member of the holy order of God (ibid., 94). It appears that Emma was the first woman to receive the priesthood in this way. Thereafter she was in charge of dispensing these same ordinances to other select women (Newell and Avery, 162). Since that time hundreds of thousands of Mormon women have been endowed with the priesthood and its keys in the temple and have been promised that they with their husbands would be “anointed and ordained to the highest order of the priesthood.” Thus, the doctrine that women have a right to the priesthood was established in the early days of the church, but it has been obscured and overlooked, rather in the same way Emma’s ordination was anonymously reported in parentheses: “(and companion d[itt]o).” So women do hold the priesthood after all.

The offices of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods were eventually seen as a means to prepare males for the fullness of priesthood. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever ordained women to these offices. However, it appears that he intended to prepare them to receive the fullness of priesthood through a different instrumentality, namely the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. This purpose was delineated by Joseph Smith in a series of discourses given by him to Relief Society members between 17 March 1842 and 31 August 1842. These speeches are our only direct evidence of his views on the subject of women and the priesthood, aside from the fact that he actually endowed and anointed women to priesthood and included them in the quorum [p.182]of the anointed. For this reason we will review these discourses at some length.

The first of these speeches was given when the society was organized on 17 March 1842. Much of the meeting was taken up with choosing and ordaining a presidency and instructing in parliamentary procedure. Joseph suggested that the society elect a presidency and said he would ordain them. Church leaders later claimed that this was not an ordination to priesthood, a point stressed later by LDS church president John Taylor who at the time actually ordained the Relief Society presidency (Woman’s Exponent 9:55). But Joseph explicitly compared the Relief Society to the ecclesiastical priesthood. He said that the presidency of the Relief Society, once elected, should “preside over the Society … just as [the] presidency preside over the Church [and their officers should] be appointed and set apart, as Deacons, Teachers, &C. are among us.” He stated further that the new presidency should serve during good behavior or “so long as they shall continue to fill the office with dignity, &C,—like the first Presidency of the Church” (WJS, 104).

After Emma Smith was elected the first president of the Relief Society, Joseph said that this action fulfilled the promise of D&C 25, where Emma was called an “elect lady” because she was “elected to preside.” He explained that in July 1830, when this revelation was given, Emma was ordained “to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of the community; and that not she alone, but others, may attain to the same blessings—” (WJS, 105). Joseph’s comment, on this occasion, that Emma was to teach the “female” part of the community takes away from the original scripture which contains no such limitation: “Thou shalt be ordained under his hand to expound scriptures and to exhort the Church according as it shall be given thee by my spirit” (D&C 25:7).

Elsewhere, however, Joseph did acknowledge this expanded sphere of woman’s influence by saying to the Relief Society that although their administrations should be confined to their close acquaintances, their knowledge and preaching could “extend to all the world” (WJS, 118-19). This accords with D&C 25, where Emma is also told that “he shall lay his hands upon thee, and thou shalt receive the Holy Ghost, and thy time shall be given to writing and to learning much” (v. 8). Here Emma is also enjoined to “lay aside the things of this world, and seek for the things of a better” (v. 10). Emma Smith and Mormon women in general are called to learn, write, expound the scriptures, and exhort the [p.183]church by virtue of their having received the gift of the Holy Ghost. They are not simply to stay in the home and content themselves with “the things of this world.”

Joseph’s second Relief Society discourse, delivered on 30 March 1842, taken with his sermon of 28 April 1842 contain the crux of his remarks on the relationship of women to the priesthood. Two main themes emerge. First, he stated that women would receive the keys of the priesthood. He approached this point with the preliminary observation that the society was to “be built up to the Most High in an acceptable manner” (WJS, 110) and that the society should be careful about which women were admitted as members. He wanted the society to make “a close examination of every candidate.” He warned that “they were going too fast—that the society should grow up by degrees; should commence with a few individuals—thus have a select society of the virtuous, and those who will walk circumspectly” (ibid.). Although these remarks may appear elitist, the rest of the text contradicts this impression. It suggests that his emphasis on a careful selection of new members stemmed from his view of the purpose of the organization. The society was not just one more women’s group dedicated to the reformation of morals. Its purpose was to prepare women to receive their endowment and the fullness of the priesthood. Joseph told the society that “All must act in concert or nothing can be done, that the society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous, and holy” (ibid.). The term “ancient priesthood” refers to the fullness of the priesthood of the Ancient of Days, Adam and Eve (TPJS, 157, 237; D&C 116), the only priesthood given to men and women jointly (D&C 132:19). Joseph’s statement that the Relief Society should “move according to the ancient Priesthood” was a reference to the fact that faithful Mormon women would be given the same priesthood held by Eve.

Joseph then went on to connect the “ancient order” with the building of Zion. He told the Relief Society that “he was going to make of this society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day—as in Paul’s day” (WJS, 110). The original version of this statement was later edited so that the word “society” was changed to “church.” Perhaps this was done because it seemed incredible to later church members that Joseph would have actually said that he intended to give Relief Society women the priesthood. However, in Bathsheba W. Smith’s account of this discourse, [p.184]she wrote that Joseph “wanted to make us, as the women were in Paul’s day, ‘a kingdom of priestesses.’ We have the ceremony in our endowments as Joseph taught'” (Madsen 1987, 84). Even if Joseph did use the masculine form “priests” instead of the feminine form “priestesses,” perhaps he was simply drawing from the scriptural passage of Exodus 19:6, “ye shall be to me a kingdom of priests.”6

The second theme Joseph sounded in this Relief Society discourse also echoed Paul in the New Testament. The theme was charity. He commended the women “for their zeal but said sometimes their zeal was not according to knowledge” (WJS, 110). When trying to root out evil, the Relief Society should be careful they were not destroying good, implying that we cannot always judge good and evil by the traditions of our culture. God may require certain behaviors repugnant to conventional morals. This is, undoubtedly, a reference to the practice of polygamy, which was at this time on Joseph Smith’s mind.

In his 28 April 1842 discourse, Joseph Smith again directly addressed the question of woman’s relationship to priesthood. His choice of subject seemed to have been prompted by the fact that some of the women had been giving blessings to each other at previous meetings. The feeling of many male church members was that this practice was wrong because blessings and priesthood were male prerogatives. To this objection Joseph gave a two-part reply. First, he said that women [p.185]have the right to administer to the sick because of the ordination and authority they receive by virtue of obtaining the gift of the Holy Ghost. Joseph quoted Mark 16:16-18 and explained that spiritual gifts such as casting out devils, speaking in tongues, laying hands on the sick are given to all, “whether male or female,” who believe and are baptized: “He ask’d the Society if they could not see by this sweeping stroke that were in [wherein] they are ordained, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is conferr’d on them—and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on” (WJS, 115). The fact that God honors the administration of women by healing the person blessed, said Joseph, shows that there is no harm in the practice. “It is no sin for anybody to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be healed by the administration” (ibid., 116).

But Joseph did not leave the matter there. He added a second justification. Women would soon have an even greater right to administer in spiritual gifts—the priesthood to be conferred upon them in the temple. Joseph said he was “turning the key” to them by revelation: “that the time had not been before that these things could be in their proper order—that the Church is not now organiz’d in its proper order and cannot be until the Temple is completed” (WJS, 115). Although the ecclesiastical offices and ordinances had been in place since Kirtland, Joseph did not consider the church properly organized until the ordinances of the temple were introduced (TPJS, 224). These ordinances would empower women to act as priestesses. He told the Relief Society: “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—this is the beginning of better days to this Society” (WJS, 118).

The proper place for the conferral of the priesthood upon women was the temple. But since Joseph had premonitions of his death, he felt an urgency to begin this work before the temple was completed: “He said as he had this opportunity, he was going to instruct the Society and pour out the way for them to conduct, that they might act according to the will of God … He spoke of delivering the keys to this society and to the Church—that according to his prayers God had appointed him elsewhere” (WJS, 116). The term “keys” used here is significant, for in Mormonism “keys” implies priesthood prerogatives, rights, and presiding authority (Mormon Doctrine, 375-79). The keys mentioned in these passages are the keys of the fullness of the priesthood transmitted by way of the endowment ceremony.

[p.186]Joseph said he intended for the women of the Relief Society to have the visitation of angels, a privilege of the fullness of the lesser priesthood: “If you live up to these principles [charity and virtue] how great and glorious—if you live up to your privilege the angels cannot be restrain’d from being your associates” (WJS, 117). He then told them that they could also be brought into the presence of God, a privilege of the fullness of the greater priesthood: “Females, if they are pure and innocent, can come into the presence of God, for what is more pleasing to God than innocence; you must be innocent or you cannot come up before God” (ibid.). Here Joseph Smith emphasized that women need no male intercessor; they have direct access to the divine. Righteousness alone is the prerequisite for priesthood blessings, and this applies to both men and women alike. For the “rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled or handled only upon the principles of righteousness” (D&C 121:36).

The following statement from the “Manuscript History of the Church” also provides evidence that in these discourses Joseph was speaking of extending the priesthood to women: “At two o’clock P.M. I met the members of the ‘female Relief Society’ and … gave a lecture on Priesthood showing how the sisters would come in possession of the privileges blessings and gifts of the Priesthood and that signs should follow them, such as healing the sick, casting out devils &C and that they might attain unto these blessings by a virtuous life and conversation and diligence in keeping all the commandments” (WJS, 119).

In this speech Joseph then went on to raise the issue of charity, showing its connection to the spiritual gifts and the priesthood. He quoted 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, where Paul wrote that charity is the greatest of the spiritual gifts. This is so not because charity outranks the others but because it encompasses them. It is the greatest in scope not the greatest in status. It is like a mantle covering the body of Christ. Without charity the members could not function as they should. They would wrangle in “jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires” (D&C 101:6). Joseph then applied the principle of charity to the Relief Society in two ways.

First, though the women did not yet have the fullness of priesthood, they were enjoined to be charitable, to wait and be patient until God called them higher. Joseph told them “it was the nonsense of the human heart for a person to be aspiring to other stations than [those] [p.187]appointed of God—that it was better for individuals to magnify their respective callings, and wait patiently till God shall say to them come up higher” (WJS, 115). Joseph warned that when women actually received a higher position, they would be tempted with power and ambition much like the “great big Elders”: “the same aspiring disposition will be in this Society, and must be guarded against—that every person should stand and act in the place appointed, and thus sanctify the Society and get it pure” (ibid., 116).

Second, Joseph told the women that although it is “natural for females to have feelings of charity,” it is also true that the “female part of community are apt to be contracted, in their views.” One of the problems, he explained, is that sometimes it may “appear that someone is doing wrong when he is in reality doing the will of God.” The devil can make us think that which is right is wrong: “he will so transform things as to make one gape at those who are doing the will of God” (WJS, 117). Joseph told the women, “you must enlarge your souls toward others if you [w]ould do like Jesus, and carry your fellow creatures to Abrams bosom. … let your hearts expand—let them be enlarged towards others—you must be longsuffering and bear with the faults and errors of mankind. … You must not be contracted but you must be liberal in your feelings” (ibid., 118).

In his next two discourses to the society, Joseph focused entirely on the subject of charity. He said that charity brings unity of feeling, and unity of feeling brings us into union with God: “if one member suffer all feel it by union of feeling we obtain pow’r with God” (WJS, 123). Unity of feeling is, of course, an important concept. Once again Joseph seemed to be preparing women for higher temple ordinances, connecting charity or “perfect love” with calling and election: “Until we have perfect love we are liable to fall” (TPJS, 9).

In Joseph’s view the love of God was more perfectly expressed when the priestly role of saving souls was added to the role of administering to temporal needs: “Away with self-righteousness. the best measure or principle to bring the poor to repentance is to administer to their wants—the Society is not only to relieve the poor but to save souls” (WJS, 124).

In light of the fact that women have an important and co-equal priestly calling, it should not be surprising to learn that Joseph Smith began to include women in a priesthood governing body in the months just prior to his martyrdom. In September of 1843 Joseph not only [p.188]gave women the endowment and the fullness of the priesthood but included them in the quorum of the anointed, the holy order.7 Although it has been argued that this quorum never functioned in the church and that it was simply the antecedent to an endowment company in today’s temple practice, there is evidence to the contrary (Quinn 1978, 89).

If Joseph thought of the holy order merely as an endowment company, why did he not treat it as an ephemeral body? Why was it called a quorum? Why did he meet with them regularly? Why did he continue to instruct them? Why was he chosen as president of the holy order if the quorum itself had no special significance? Why did he allow this quorum to engage in activities beyond instruction in the temple endowment? The quorum conducted prayer circles not merely for the purpose of instructing the members in the details of temple prayer but for the purpose of addressing in prayer problems affecting the whole church. The quorum counseled together, partook of the sacrament, discussed the doctrines of the kingdom, heard lectures from Joseph Smith, and looked upon quorum meetings as an occasion for spiritual renewal. The following excerpt from Heber C. Kimball’s journal reflects this: “On Sunday Morning at 9 Oclock all of the holy order will assemble fore prair and council. Our wives will come and pertack with us: the Sacarment will be administer[ed] … and spend the day in those thing[s] that the spirit shall teach. … “(Quinn 1978, 93).

Prayer, of course, was one of the primary functions of the quorum. Though this may not seem as important as administrative meetings, Joseph instilled in the minds of his followers the idea that the true order of prayer was the most effective means of bringing about change. Joseph did not have a managerial view, he had a sacral one. He believed (as perhaps did Thomas More) that the kingdom of God could be governed by prayer. For this reason prayer was not just another private devotional. It was an act of spiritual administration, asking God to bring about needed changes and needed action.

It is thus possible to view the holy order both as a prayer circle and as an administrative body of the church. Brigham Young claimed that it was by the true order of prayer that he kept the church together and the mobs at bay after the martyrdom (Allen, 48n; Kimball Journal, 21 Dec. 1845; HC 5:45). On one occasion in Nauvoo, Newel K. Whitney and Dr. John M. Bernhisel thought the quorum should meet to pray [p.189]that the weather would change so that sickness would not spread among the Saints (Quinn 1978, 104). Joseph himself claimed that he had to be careful when he prayed for his enemies’ destruction, since the Lord was likely to answer his prayers (WJS, 331). Because of this early stress on the importance of prayer in church governance, the tradition has persisted to this day that presiding quorums meet together to conduct prayer circles.8

Joseph Smith also taught the quorum that the true order of prayer was a means by which messengers and revelations could be tested, devils detected, and spirits discerned. Since for Joseph true religion always involved revelation and contact with the supernatural, the ability to discern the source of the contact was essential. According to George A. Smith, “there was no point upon which the prophet Joseph dwelt more than the discerning of Spirits” (Ehat, 33).

Joseph instructed the quorum that since they had the keys, they were to test the revelations of anyone claiming to have received one for the church. At the trial of Sidney Rigdon in August of 1844, two different members of the quorum used this argument to show that Sidney Rigdon’s revelations were false. Orson Hyde said that Rigdon should have called the quorum together to have his revelation tested. In the same trial William Marks tried to defend Rigdon by saying that Rigdon did not know about this procedure: “As respects his [Rigdon’s] not presenting his vision or revelation before the first quorum I can say that Elder Rigdon did not know that this order was introduced. Brother Joseph told us that he, for the future whenever there was a revelation to be presented to the church he should first present it to that quorum, and then if it passed the first quorum, it should be presented to the Church. But Brother Rigdon did not know this, for he was only just brought into the quorum before he left to go to Pittsburg” (Times and Seasons 5:664). Both Hyde and Marks were referring to the anointed quorum. It is also clear that the quorum had real if not supreme priesthood authority in the church, for this quorum, which Marks refers to here as the “first quorum,” could pass upon the validity of revelations for the church.

This same view of the quorum was emphasized by others at Rigdon’s [p.190]trial. For example Heber C. Kimball indicated that although Sidney Rigdon had held high church office, he did not have as much authority as others who held the fullness of the priesthood and participated in the “council pertaining to the High Priesthood”: “[Sidney Rigdon] has no authority only what he receives from the church, if he was one with us, why was he not in our councils? He was not in the council pertaining to the High Priesthood until just before he started for Pittsburgh. Brother Phelps was the means of bringing him in, but he has not got the same authority as others; there are more than thirty men who have got higher authority than he has” (Times and Seasons 5:663).

In Heber C. Kimball’s mind, to have the fullness of priesthood and to participate fully in the “first quorum” was equated with having the highest authority in the church. This view is substantiated by evidence that Joseph Smith conducted important church business in a meeting of the “first quorum” held on 1 October 1843. There Joseph anointed William Law and Amasa Lyman as counselors in the First Presidency of the church, in spite of the fact that Sidney Rigdon had not yet been officially released from his position in the presidency according to church procedure. When questioned how ordinations could be valid, Joseph answered cryptically: “Why, (said he) by the same rule that Samuel anointed David to be King over Israel while Saul was yet crowned” (Ehat, 119).

It appears that from the time Joseph organized the quorum until his death, he relied more and more upon it to test out his doctrinal innovations and to disclose his most important decisions (Ehat, 41). Joseph’s focus on this quorum made up of couples holding the fullness of the priesthood underscores the importance of the priesthood power of both women and men for the full redemption of the individual and society. The outer city of God could not be built until the inner temple in each man and woman was reconstructed. It was by the last anointing to the fullness of the priesthood and by the acquisition of the powers of heaven that each man and woman was brought to this place. That Joseph saw this as his culminating work is seen in the phrase he used when he referred to this dispensation not just as the “dispensation of the fullness of times” but as the “dispensation of the fullness of the priesthood” (HC 5:14). This was part of the restoration of all things; the priesthood operative at the beginning of the world had to be restored in the end of the world (Moses 6:7). For as Bishop Whitney stated, “without the female all things cannot be restored to the earth—it takes all to restore the Priesthood” (Newell 1987, 116).

[p.191]That Joseph Smith held this view is corroborated by ancillary evidence. For example, in an 1843 patriarchal blessing given to Leonora Taylor, wife of Apostle John Taylor, Patriarch Hyrum Smith said: “You [Leonora] shall be blessed with your portion of the Priesthood which belongeth unto you, that you may be set apart for your Anointing and your induement [sic]” (Madsen 1987, 101). Zina Card in a blessing given to her by Patriarch Joseph Young was told that she would have power over the adversary and over all kinds of diseases, that she would be “full of the spirit of the Father” and that she held “the blessings and the power according to the holy Melchizedek Priesthood, you received in your endowments” (Madsen 1987, 101).

The symbols and ordinances of the temple also evidence that the endowment was understood to be a bestowal of priesthood on both men and women. Both wear the garments and robes of the Aaronic and the Melchizedek priesthoods and are instructed that with the robe in the proper position, they can officiate in all of the ordinances of both priesthoods. Women perform priestly duties in the temple and actually administer priesthood ordinances.9

However, Joseph’s vision of priesthood faded quickly after his death. And so did the importance of the quorum, the place of women in it, and the role of women as priestesses in Zion. Ironically, though the Twelve Apostles succeeded to Joseph’s place because of their anointing to the fullness of the priesthood, they shifted the preeminent authority away from the quorum of the anointed to the quorum of the twelve. An apostolic dispensation ensued.10 Perhaps Brigham Young did this [p.192]consciously because he believed that the time for Zion was not yet. Perhaps he was angry at the women of the church, especially Emma Smith, for opposing polygamy, or perhaps he did it because necessity dictated this course of action. Whatever the reason, under the administration of Brigham Young, the anointed quorum and the concept of woman’s role in the priesthood both received quick death blows (Derr).

Just after the apostles assumed the leadership of the church, they “conversed about [the Quorum and] voted no women … to be admitted in the Quorum—till times will permit” (Ehat, 206). The ostensible reason for this action was fear that a mob would make an attempt on the lives of all members of the anointed quorum, but still the exclusion of women points to a pattern of closing doors to women. In fairness to Brigham Young and other leaders, we should add that during the period from the death of Joseph to the completion of the Nauvoo temple, even the entire body of male members of the anointed quorum seldom met together. Instead they gathered in smaller groups for prayer circles. Also individual women were occasionally allowed to receive the fullness of priesthood with their husbands. However, when the male [p.193]members of the quorum began meeting again regularly in the Nauvoo temple, they did not include their wives at their first few meetings. That the women felt a sense of loss during their period of exclusion is reflected in Heber C. Kimball’s statement that Brigham Young’s decision to include the women once again in the 7 December 1845 meeting of the anointed quorum “gave great joy to our wimmen” (Quinn 1978, 93). The quorum of the anointed met on a few more occasions in December 1845, with an ever-increasing number of new members as more and more of the Saints received their endowments. Then at the end of that month, the quorum ceased its separate meetings.

Perhaps Brigham Young felt it was unnecessary to continue these meetings since the temple was completed and the endowment was being administered there and since important church business could be taken care of by the twelve. By early December 1845, Brigham Young no longer conducted church business in quorum meetings. For example, on 11 December 1845 the anointed quorum met in the Nauvoo temple for a prayer circle. After they were finished Brigham Young called some of the men out of the group for a private meeting in which they discussed some information relevant to the Saints’ going west. Then this smaller group prayed again in the true order about these concerns (Quinn 1978, 89-90). This procedure contrasts with the way the anointed quorum was conducted by Joseph, who trusted all members with confidential matters.

With the disbanding of the anointed quorum, women were no longer included in prayer circles, except at that point in the endowment ceremony when instruction on prayer circles is given. Men, however, continued to participate in prayer circles—not only church leaders but also lay members who were invited to be members of specially constituted prayer circles. According to Michael Quinn, “the available records of the special and ecclesiastical prayer circles from the 1850s to the 1950s describe only one instance in which women met with their husbands in prayer circle meetings” (1978, 95). In a meeting in 1896, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve discussed whether the sisters should be allowed to hold their own prayer circles and also whether they should be permitted to join their husbands in prayer circles. These leaders decided both questions in the negative: “The subject of permission to the sisters to meet in prayer circles was discussed, as the question had been asked whether it would be right or whether they could be permitted to meet with their husbands in a prayer circle, seeing that sisters had been admitted to prayer circles in the Nauvoo [p.194]Temple. It was shown, however, that on such occasions it was for the purpose of teaching the order of prayer as it is now the custom in the Temples. It was decided that if the sisters desired to meet for prayer they could do so as members and officers of Relief Societies in their regular places of meeting, but that it would not be advisable for them to meet at circles or to participate in prayer circle meetings” (ibid.).

These men thus reasoned that the only purpose of the prayer circles in Nauvoo was to give instruction in the true order of prayer. If this is true, then the instruction itself becomes meaningless since it leads to nothing outside itself. What good comes from receiving the keys to ask and get an answer if a person is never allowed to exercise those keys. Obviously these church leaders in 1896 felt that men could and should engage in the true order of prayer, since prayer circles for church leaders and for other male church members abounded at this time. But these same leaders saw no need for women to utilize these same keys, which they also had received. The implication is that the concerns of women are too trivial to be addressed in the true order of prayer. This 1896 decision serves also as a statement against the necessity of the union of the sexes. One of the purposes of the true order of prayer is to promote unity of feeling and belief, and yet it has not been considered important to include women in prayer circles from 1846 to the present.

Besides disbanding the anointed quorum and excluding women from prayer circles, Brigham Young decided to “defer the operations” of the Relief Society in 1844. This decision also shut doors for women and cut off official channels for operating in their priestly roles. John Taylor thought this was done because Emma Smith had been using the Relief Society as a forum to oppose Brigham Young and the doctrine of plural marriage. She may have preached against polygamy to the sisters even while Joseph Smith was alive. Perhaps Brigham Young felt that a spirit of dissension was operating in the society. But as John Taylor remarked, other women had done much good “and should not be deprived of their rights and privileges because others have done wrong” (Woman’s Exponent 11: 54).

It was not until 1867 that Brigham Young officially reorganized the Relief Society on a churchwide basis, although during the interim local Relief Societies had functioned in Utah as charitable institutions. For example, Native American Relief Societies were made up of anglo women whose business it was to see that the Native Americans of Southern Utah were properly clad. Unfortunately the enterprise seemed [p.195]doomed to failure because the Mormon work ethic would not allow these clothes to be given without some return effort. Most of the clothes wound up in the hands of white settlers, and the Indians, we may suppose, remained unclad (Jensen).

With the reorganization of the Relief Society in 1867, the focus of the society was much more temporal than spiritual. The ever-practical Brigham Young felt he needed the services and resources of women to stabilize the economic and social structure of the Mormon kingdom and to stave-off the encroaching Gentiles with their unwanted worldly influence.

Though Brigham Young’s purpose for reorganizing the Relief Society coincides with the women’s original purpose in Nauvoo (a charitable institution to fortify community morals), this purpose falls short of the vision Joseph Smith had for the society: to expand women’s spiritual horizons and make of them a “kingdom of priestesses.” Leaders after Joseph were quick and deliberate in limiting women’s sphere of action in the church. A 21 December 1845 Heber C. Kimball journal entry of a meeting in the Nauvoo Temple illustrates this. Seventy-five persons were present, and Heber C. Kimball presided in the place of Brigham Young, who was absent from Nauvoo. On this occasion instructions and explanations about the endowment were given. The women present were told by George A. Smith that they “ought to be in subjection” to their husbands and by Amasa Lyman that “the man … has covenanted to obey the law of God, and the woman to obey her husband” and by Heber C. Kimball that women should be “in subjection to their husbands, [for] the man was created, and God gave him dominion over the whole earth, but he saw that he never could multiply and replenish the earth without woman; and He made one and gave her to him. He did not make the man for the woman but the woman for the man” (Woman’s Exponent 12:26, 34).

This comment demonstrates that, by this time, a fundamentally negative and restrictive interpretation of the endowment as it touched upon the role of women was being developed by church leaders to ensure that women did not avail themselves of the priesthood privileges extended to them by Joseph Smith. Instead of seeing that women were being given priesthood in which to function in spiritual matters, they could only speak of women in terms of subjection to men. It is as if these remarks were motivated by a fear that women would see themselves as the spiritual equals of men and, therefore, had to be reminded to stay in their proper place. There is little if anything left here of the [p.196]tone of Joseph’s discourses to the Relief Society in which he told Mormon women that he was “turning the key to them,” or in other words opening up doors. By December 1845 we see those doors beginning to close.

But in spite of these limitations, Mormon women in the nineteenth century continued to express their religious devotion by holding prayer circles among themselves, by anointing and healing the sick, by speaking in and interpreting tongues, and by prophesying. Those who had participated in the anointed quorum and the Relief Society of Nauvoo believed that they had the right to do these things by virtue of their anointings as queens and priestesses (Madsen 1981; Newell and Avery 1981).

It is ironic that some men and women today look back at these women and their enjoyment of spiritual gifts as though they lived in a golden age, when in reality they lived and served under restrictive conditions and within a framework that had greatly narrowed since the time of Joseph Smith. But, of course, from our perspective, these women did live in favored times, for by the outset of the twentieth century, the enjoyment of spiritual gifts had nearly ceased among women of the church and, sadly, among men as well. By this time, women no longer thought of themselves as having a rightful and equal claim upon the fullness of the priesthood. This was due, in part, to the fact that the ordinance of the holy anointing to the highest and holiest order of the priesthood was falling into disuse. There was also lost the idea that this priesthood and these ceremonies were indispensable to full salvation (Buerger).

Where does all this lead? Is there a paradise to be regained? If there is, it was never realized in this dispensation, even during the lifetime of Joseph Smith. There never was a Mormon golden age. Though Joseph may have had the vision of a Zion society, where men and women were united together and held “all things in common,” he certainly did not bring such a society into being. He was, as Isaiah prophesied, a “rod” that bore no fruit, but who may yet be the “Branch” that brings again Zion (11:1).

Zion cannot be built without the equality of priesthood set forth in the doctrine of the fullness of the priesthood restored by the prophet Elijah. Without this the “whole earth would be utterly wasted” at the coming of the Lord. In spite of the fact that the modern church sees the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of the return of Elijah in terms of genealogy work and of temple marriage, for us Elijah’s mission was to [p.197]reveal the fullness of the priesthood and the temple as a place to receive the keys of that priesthood and an anointing to the power of an endless life so that we may be transformed thereby in the divine image and stand in the presence of God.

This chapter was first written as a paper entitled “The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestesses in the Establishment of Zion.” When our close friend, Gregg Alvord, heard this title, he said caustically, “What about the forgotten place of kings and priests?” Of course, he was right. Most men and women in the church today are not struggling for the right to exercise spiritual gifts and priestly powers. As Mormons, we live in an age when the spiritual powers seem to be at their nadir. How many, today, care about spiritual gifts? About the establishment of Zion? Is it not already here? Do we not, as one Mormon wag has acerbically pointed out, have Zion’s Bank?

Here, of course, is the problem we face. In order for women to take their rightful places as queens and priestesses, both men and women in the church must first accept a redefinition of priesthood in spiritual rather than strictly temporal or corporate terms, to accept the unseen as well as the seen, the sacral as well as the secular. If women simply demand ordination to ecclesiastical or priesthood offices as a means of seizing power in the church structure, then they are questing after the wrong objective and are fighting the wrong battle—the battle of the sexes, which is really a struggle for power, for the whip handle, for the number one spot, for the management of the corporation.

This is not to say that women should not hold priesthood and church offices. We have often argued that women should be included in all the offices and councils of the church, including the First Presidency. Our point here is that priesthood should not be defined in terms of competitive or coercive power. This is unrighteous dominion, a form of oppression and denigration of life. Rather, we must see priesthood in terms of the power of God, the power of life, the power of divine love, the power that restores, unites, atones, and balances extremes. This is the priesthood power that both men and women should be encouraged to seek.

Joseph Smith told the Relief Society, in every speech he ever gave them, that for this to come about it was essential to have charity, the pure and sacrificial love of Christ. What will happen if the women of the church argue for and seek with patience, determination, and love their priesthood rights? In Joseph’s words, “God shall say to them, come up higher” (WJS, 116).


1. Significantly among the first revelations Joseph Smith received from the angel Moroni was the 1823 pronouncement that the priesthood would be revealed not by John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John but by Elijah the prophet. This revelation did not appear in print, however, until 1842. Section 110, dated 3 April 1836, reports the coming of Elijah the prophet together with other heavenly messengers including “Messiah” to restore the fullness of the keys of the priesthood. However, it was not until May 1842 that Joseph transmitted the keys of this priesthood to others (Quinn; Ehat; Buerger).

2. The concept of the fullness of priesthood is claimed to have had an earlier provenance than 1836. The revelation known as Doctrine and Covenants 2, which refers to “the priesthood by the hand of Elijah the prophet,” is said to have been received on 23 September 1823, but was first published on 15 April 1842 in the Times and Seasons. I[p.180]t is also claimed in “the substance of a revelation given in Jackson County, Missouri, July 17, 1831, and reported by William W. Phelps, giving Joseph Smith and his associates instruction upon their arrival in Missouri to dedicate the land of Zion” that the Lord revealed: “Verily, I say unto you, that the wisdom of man, in his fallen state, knoweth not the purposes and the privileges of my holy priesthood, but ye shall know when ye receive a fullness by reason of my holy anointing” (Collier, 58).

3. In remarks made by Joseph Smith during this period, he indicated his intention to proceed with the administration of ordinances necessary to elevate himself and others to the fullness of the priesthood. In a 16 July 1843 sermon, he said that he “would not prophecy any more, Hyrum should be prophet (did not tell them he was going to be a priest now, or a king by and by)” (HC 5:512). On 23 July 1843 he recorded: “Last Monday morning certain men came to me and said: ‘Brother Joseph, Hyrum is no prophet—he can’t lead the church; you must lead the church. If you resign, all things will go wrong; you must not resign; if you do the church will be scattered.’ I felt curious and said: ‘Have we not learned the Priesthood after the order of Melchizedek, which includes both Prophets, priests and kings … and I will advance your Propeht to a Priest, and then to a King—not of the Kingdoms of this earth, but of the Most High. … ‘ ‘Thou hast made us unto our God, Kings and Priests, and we shall reign on the earth'” (TPJS, 318).

4. The words “endow” and “endowment,”‘ used in the LDS church to refer to the temple ceremony, are not derived from the word “endow,” meaning a gift or bequest, but from the word “endue,” used in Luke 24:49. Endue means to lead into, to instruct, to introduce, to take in, to put on as a garment, to clothe or cover, to assume or take upon one’s self, to put on garments, to overlay, to invest with dignities, possessions, honors, etc., to invest with property, to supply, and to bestow or grant (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “endue”).

5. This pattern of ordination was used from the beginning of Mormonism. In the reports of the bestowal of the lesser priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, Joseph was commanded to ordain Oliver first. Then Oliver ordained Joseph. Since Joseph was to restore the gospel and the priesthood, he was the first to administer an ordinance and then in turn would receive the same ordinance from whoever had received it from him. This made Joseph the first to confer priesthood keys in this dispensation. The same pattern was claimed with respect to the conferral of the higher priesthood. Though Elijah is said to have restored the fullness of the priesthood on 3 April 1836, no ordinations are mentioned. However, on 4 May 1842, the keys of the fullness of the priesthood were conveyed to Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, Newel K. Whitney, James Adams, and George Miller. The following day these ordinances were administered to Joseph and Hyrum.

6. Jesus is reported to have made a similar remark which was recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, a gnostic text. There Peter objects to Jesus’ always being in the company of Mary Magdalene. In response to this criticism, Jesus is presented as saying: “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male” (Robinson, 130). This, however, does not mean that Mary would cease to be a woman but that she would become one with him. This fact is explained elsewhere in the text, where Jesus explains: “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female …; then will you enter [the Kingdom]” (ibid., 121).

Some see this text as an example of the gnostic tendency to eliminate sexuality altogether and to see woman as valuable only insofar as they are desexed and mirror the male. However, we believe this passage can be interpreted to reinforce the importance of a mystical union of the sexes in which the man and the woman, while retaining their individual sexual natures, become one with one another and one with God. In this sense these passages are another way of expressing Paul’s concept that “in Christ Jesus there is no more male and female” (Gal. 3:28). They become a compound in one, a whole or holy person, a “Man of Holiness” (Moses 6:57; 7:35). In this context “man” is used in the sense employed in Gen. 1:27 to embrace both male and female in mystical unity.

7. See, for example, Kenney, 1:337-52.

8. In December 1845 Amasa Lyman told a group of newly endowed Saints: “You have now learned how to pray. You have been taught how to approach God, and be recognized. This is the principle by which the Church has been kept together, and not the power of arms” (Heber C. Kimball Journal, 21 Dec. 1845).

9. In ancient Israel entrance into the holy sanctuaries of the temple was forbidden to anyone but the priests, and only the high priest could enter the holy of holies. In Mormon temples women have access to all the inner sanctuaries, even the holy of holies, where the highest ordinance of the temple, the second anointing, is administered.

10. In the decades following the death of Joseph Smith, the concept of the fullness of the priesthood was divorced from the quorum of the anointed and associated instead with the quorum of the twelve. In a sermon given in the Salt Lake tabernacle on 6 April 1853, Brigham Young stated: “The keys of the Eternal Priesthood, which is after the order of the Son of God, are comprehended by being an Apostle. All the Priesthood, all the keys, all the gifts, all the endowments, and everything preparatory to entering into the presence of the Father and the Son, are in, composed of, circumscribed by, or I might say incorporated within the circumference of the Apostleship” (JD 1:134).

Apostle George Q. Cannon’s speeches on this subject take the concept a step further. He does not speak of the fullness of the priesthood but the “fullness of the [p.192]Apostleship,” suggesting that the office of king and priest belongs exclusively or at least primarily to the members of that quorum rather than to all members of the church. No mention is ever made of the relationship of this priesthood to women. The reminiscences related here are urged upon the members of the church for the purpose of reinforcing the claim of the quorum of the twelve to the succession after the death of Joseph Smith. An argument could be made that Joseph did not in fact lay the kingdom on the shoulders of the twelve but on the shoulders of the men and women of the Holy Order, of which the twelve were members. Cannon himself said: “Prior to the completion of the Temple, he took the Twelve and certain other men, who were chosen, and bestowed upon them a holy anointing, similar to that which was received on the day of Pentecost by the Twelve, who had been told to tarry at Jerusalem. This endowment was bestowed upon the chosen few whom Joseph anointed and ordained, giving them the keys of the holy Priesthood, the power and authority which he himself held, to build up the Kingdom of God in all the earth and accomplish the great purposes of our Heavenly Father; and it was by virtue of this authority, on the death of Joseph, that President Young, as President of the quorum of the Twelve, presided over the Church” (JD 13:49).

On 8 October 1877, he further stated: “Was it necessary for the Prophet Joseph Smith to set apart Brigham or Heber or Willard, or any of the rest of the Twelve Apostles? No, for the same reason, they had received the fullness of the Holy Priesthood, the full endowment and the keys, and the authority, and the fullness of the Apostleship. … The blessing of such men or by such men, would not bestow upon him any additional authority or any more keys, presuming that he had received the fullness of the Apostleship” (JD 19:235).