Women and Authority
Maxine Hanks, editor

Chapter 2
The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood
Linda King Newell

[23] In the LDS church all worthy men from the age of twelve on hold priesthood office and administer most of the ordinances and rituals. Women are given limited authority to perform some temple-related rituals for other women, but they are not recognized as priesthood holders. When the topic of women holding the priesthood comes up, it is often met with bad jokes (“I hold the priesthood every night he comes home from work” or “Maybe women will hold the priesthood when men become mothers”) and a not-so-subtle display of fear among men (“what are women trying to do, take over the male role?”) and women (“I wouldn’t want all that responsibility—would you?”). Usually those who express such views are convinced that their position is shared by all faithful members, including “the Brethren,” and is consistent with church history. While this essay leaves unanswered the question of women’s ordination to priesthood office, it reveals a more expansive view than many church members now hold.

I have not found recorded cases where women themselves have claimed ordination to priesthood office. There are, however, accounts of women being “ordained” to specific callings and of women who exercised powers and spiritual gifts now assigned only to men who hold the priesthood. These practices and their endorsement by such church leaders as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Heber J. Grant, and others, have left the unanswered question of [24] what authority women are intended to hold.

Initially there was little difference between women and men as recipients of spiritual gifts. In an early revelation Joseph Smith formalized practices already manifest in the church (see D&C 46)1, identifying “differences of administration, the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith to be healed, faith to heal, the working of miracles, prophecy, the discerning of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues.” These gifts came ungendered. They were gifts of the household of faith, given to “the children of God,” male and female. For instance, women were as likely to heal or be healed as were men. But during the early twentieth century, healing was increasingly regarded as the exclusive prerogative of men.

It was in Kirtland, Ohio (1832-37), that these gifts first flourished. At no time were they more in evidence than at the completion of the Kirtland Temple.2 The women of the church had worked to build the temple and they attended public gatherings, but they were not yet allowed to participate in the promised endowment ordinance. George A. Smith, reminiscing later as a member of the First Presidency, recalled that some of the women were “right huffy” as a consequence.3

Kirtland was where “blessing meetings” were instituted. These were evening gatherings where Joseph Smith’s father as patriarch to the church pronounced prophecies and blessings on the heads of the faithful. Caroline Barnes Crosby wrote of her and her husband Jonathan receiving their patriarchal blessings: “These blessings cheered and rejoiced our hearts exceedingly … Mother [Lucy Mack] Smith was in the room. She added her blessing or confirmed what we had already received.”4

Sarah Studevant Leavitt remembered a spiritual blessing of another sort during this period. Praying to the Lord for her seriously ill daughter Louisa, she saw an angel who told her to get the girl out of bed, lay “hands upon her head in the name of Jesus Christ and administer to her and she should recover.” Sarah awakened her husband and told him to prepare Louisa for the blessing. After her mother blessed her, Louisa was soon “up and about.”5

Sarah’s experience may be the first recorded instance in the church of a healing blessing by a woman, but Joseph Smith, Sr., church patriarch, gave Eda Rogers a blessing in 1837 that clearly [25] endorsed such powers: “In the absence of thy husband thou must pray with thy family. When they are sick thou shalt lay hands on them, and they shall recover. Sickness shall stand back.”6

When Joseph Smith organized the Nauvoo Relief Society on 17 March 1842, he gave women an autonomy currently unknown in the church. There is ample evidence that Joseph envisioned the Relief Society as an organization for women parallel to priesthood hierarchy for men. He instructed sisters to elect their own president who would then select her counselors. Then he “would ordain them to preside over the society … just as the Presidency preside over the church … If any officers are wanted to carry out the designs of the Institution, let them be appointed and act apart, as Deacons, Teachers &c., are among us.”7

Elizabeth Ann Whitney moved that Emma Smith be made president. Sophia Packard seconded it. Emma chose Elizabeth Ann Whitney and Sarah M. Cleveland as counselors. Joseph then “read the Revelation to Emma Smith, from the … Doctrine and Covenants; and stated that she was ordain’d at the time the revelation was given [in July 1830], to expound the scriptures to all; and to teach the female part of the community.” He continued by saying that she was designated an “Elect Lady” because she was “elected to preside.” John Taylor then “laid his hands on the head of Mrs. Cleveland and ordain’d her to be a Counsellor to … Emma Smith.” He followed the same procedure in ordaining Elizabeth Whitney. Susa Young Gates later emphasized that these women were “not only set apart, but ordained.”

The use of ordain seems to link these accounts to priesthood powers, although I have found no records of the women claiming this. Still at the third meeting, 30 March 1842, Joseph addressed the women and told them “that the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood … he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of Priests as in Enoch’s day—as in Paul’s day.”

On 17 May Newell K. Whitney accompanied Joseph Smith and told the Relief Society women: “In the beginning, God created man, male and female, and bestow’d 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.” Although Whitney had recently been initiated into [26] the endowment and his remarks reflect his awareness of women’s forthcoming role in that ordinance, his words also reflect an anticipation that many held in that era: women’s role within the church including priesthood powers—at least in some form. On 28 April 1842 Joseph told the women: “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.” It is important to remember that “keys” were associated with “priesthood” and that Joseph turned the key to women rather than “in their behalf” as the History of the Church (4:607) would later report. It is clear that at its inception the Relief Society was not considered an “auxiliary” in the church as the Primary for children, Sunday School, and Mutual Improvement Association for adolescents would later be.

The wording change which transformed the organization into an “auxiliary” can be traced to George A. Smith who in 1851 was assigned to complete Joseph Smith’s history. In working on the manuscript from 1 April 1840 to 1 March 1842, he revised and corrected the already compiled history, using “reports of sermons of Joseph Smith and others from minutes or sketches taken at the time in long hand.” He mentioned using Eliza R. Snow’s writings as well and said he had taken “the greatest care … to convey the ideas in the prophet’s style as near as possible; and in no case has the sentiment been varied that I know of.”8 He did not comment on this particular passage from the minutes or explain his reasons for changing “I turn the key to you” to read “I now turn the key in your behalf.”

By the time the Relief Society was organized, women had already exercised such spiritual gifts as speaking in tongues and blessing the sick. After the close of the fourth meeting, 19 April 1842, Emma Smith, Sarah Cleveland, and Elizabeth Whitney administered to a Sister Durfee. The following week, she testified that she had “been healed and thought the sisters had more faith than the brethren.” After that meeting, Sarah and Elizabeth blessed another Relief Society member, Abigail Leonard, “for the restoration of health.”

In the next meeting Joseph Smith specifically addressed the propriety of women giving blessings: “If God gave his sanction by healing … there could be no more sin in any female laying hands [27] on the sick than in wetting the face with water.” There were women ordained to heal the sick and it was their privilege to do so. “If the sisters should have faith to heal the sick,” he said, “let all hold their tongues.”9

After the death of Joseph Smith in June 1844, the Relief Society did not meet. The following spring several women must have approached Brigham Young about resuming regular meetings, for in a meeting of the Seventies Young declared that

Sister[s] … have no right to meddle in the affairs of the kingdom of God … [they] never can hold the Priesthood apart from their husbands. When I want Sisters or the Wives of the members of the church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay at home & if you see females huddling together veto the concern … and if they say Joseph started it tell them its a damned lie for I know he never encouraged it.10

“Blessing meetings” continued notwithstanding, and in them women combined the laying on of hands for health blessings, tongues, and prophecy. Eliza R. Snow’s diary contains numerous references to these occasions. For example, on 1 January 1847, she wrote of receiving a blessing “thro’ our belov’d mother chase and sis[ter] Clarissa [Decker] by the gift of tongues,” adding: “To describe the scene … would be beyond my power.”11 This group of women would teach the next several generations of Mormon women about spiritual gifts.

Another practice grew out of the ordinances introduced in the Nauvoo temple. Washing and anointing the sick became a common practice among church members, particularly women. It was customary for the person administering to anoint with oil the part of the body in need—for example, a sore shoulder or perhaps a crushed leg. For instance, in 1849 Eliza Jane Merrick, an English convert, reported healing her sister: “I anointed her chest with the oil you consecrated, and also gave her some inwardly … She continued very ill all the evening: her breath very short, and the fever very high. I again anointed her chest in the name of the Lord, and asked his blessing; he was graciously pleased to hear me, and in the course of twenty-four hours, she was as well as if nothing had been the matter.”12 One can easily see the inappropriateness of men anointing women in such cases.

[28] Mary Ellen Able Kimball’s journal records a visit on 2 March 1857 to wash and anoint a sick woman who immediately felt better. But after returning home,

I thought of the instructions I had received from time to time that the priesthood was not bestowed upon woman. I accordingly asked Mr [Heber C.] Kimball [her husband] if woman had a right to wash and anoint the sick for the recovery of their health or is it a mockery in them to do so. He replied inasmuch as they are obedient to their husbands they have a right to administer in that way in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ but not by authority of the priesthood invested in them for that authority is not given to woman.

Mary Ellen concluded with the kind of argument that would calm women’s apprehensions for the next four decades: “He also said they might administer by the authority given to their husbands in as much as they were one with their husband.”13

On other occasions the concept of women holding priesthood was reinforced when husbands and wives joined together in blessing their children. Wilford Woodruff’s namesake son, just ordained a priest, was about to begin his duties. The future church president summoned his family on 3 February 1854 and recorded in his journal: “His father and mother [Phoebe Carter Woodruff] laid hands upon him and blessed him and dedicated him unto the Lord.”14 On 8 September 1875 George Goddard recorded a similar incident about his sixteen-year-old son, Brigham H. On his birthday, “his Mother and Myself, put our hands upon his head and pronounced a parents blessing upon him.”15

In general, church leaders encouraged women to develop and use their spiritual power. Brigham Young, speaking in the tabernacle on 14 November 1869, asked, “Why do you not live so as to rebuke disease? … it is the privilege of a mother to have faith and to administer to her child; this she can do herself, as well as sending for the Elders.”16 The year before in Cache Valley, Apostle Ezra T. Benson had called on women who had been “ordained” and held “the power to rebuke diseases” to do so and urged all the women to gain “the same power” by “exercis[ing] faith.”17 The record does not specify who the ordained women were or who ordained them, implying that they were well known in the community.

Spiritual gifts other than healing were manifest among the [29] women. Emmeline B. Wells was praised as “prophetic as well as poetical.”18 Apostle Orson Pratt, addressing the Saints in a general meeting, used women’s exercise of the gift of prophecy to prove the authenticity of the church, for “there never was a genuine Christian Church unless it had Prophets and Prophetesses.”19 Eliza Snow, particularly in connection with her duties in the temple, frequently gave blessings which included prophecy. In 1857 when Guy Messiah Keysor was sealed to another wife in the endowment house, Eliza Snow laid her hands on his wife’s head, “prophesied that she should live yet many days should receive her washings and anointings and health and things should come to pass according to her faith.” She also prophesied in behalf of at least two more members of the party.20

While these applications of faith were loving and natural, the question of women’s authority remained unsettled. Zina Huntington, a plural wife first of Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young, received a patriarchal blessing from John Smith, Joseph’s uncle, in 1850, which stated: “the Priesthood in fullness is & Shall be Conferd upon you.”21 Sarah Granger Kimball, whose idea it was to organize the women of Nauvoo, had used the priesthood structure as a pattern for the Relief Society in her ward, complete with deaconesses and teachers.22 However, John Taylor, who had originally ordained those first officers in March 1842, explained that “some of the sisters have thought that these sisters mentioned were, in this ordination, ordained to the priesthood … [but] it is not the calling of these sisters to hold the Priesthood, only in connection with their husbands, they being one with their husbands.”23 This 1880 statement has stood as the official interpretation.

On 23 December 1881 Zina Huntington Young records in her diary that she washed and anointed one woman “for her health, and administered to another for her hearing” and then reminisced about the days in Nauvoo. “I have practiced much with My Sister Presendia Kimball while in Nauvoo & ever since before Joseph Smith’s death. He blest Sister’s to bless the sick.” Then on 3 September 1890 she noted that Bishop Newel K. Whitney had “blest the Sisters in having faith to administer to there own families in humble faith not saying by the Authority of the Holy Priesthood but in the name of Jesus Christ.” She thus made a direct distinction between the women’s [30] blessings and priesthood blessings. Six months earlier she had visited her sick son and administered to him.24

Statements about healing by women and priesthood functions created confusion among church members for several years. In 1878 Angus Cannon, president of the Salt Lake Stake, announced, “The sisters have a right to anoint the sick, and pray the Father to heal them, and to exercise that faith that will prevail with God; but women must be careful how they use the authority of the priesthood in administering to the sick.”25 A circular letter from the First Presidency spelled out that women “should not be ordained to any office in the Priesthood; but they may he appointed as Helps, and Assistants, and Presidents, among their own sex,” and that anointing and blessing the sick were not official functions of the Relief Society since any faithful Church member might perform the actions. Women could administer to the sick “in their respective families.” This raised another question: What about administering to those of the same sex outside the family circle? The practice of calling for the elders or for the sisters had been clearly established. In 1884 Eliza R. Snow addressed yet another question: “Is it necessary for sisters to be set apart to officiate in the sacred ordinances of washing, anointing, and laying on of hands in administering to the sick?” She answered emphatically: “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.”26

The washings and anointings to which Eliza Snow referred were done in connection with “administering to the sick.” Although these rites grew out of temple ordinances in Nauvoo, their practice by women occurred outside the temple. Even after the establishment of the Endowment House in Salt Lake City in 1855 and later the dedication of the St. George, Manti, and Logan temples, the ordinances took place there and within the privacy of individual homes. The wording took different forms as the occasion demanded. One of the most common washing and anointing blessings was for childbirth.

Two differing points of view were now in print. Eliza Snow and the First Presidency agreed that the Relief Society could perform [31] healings for women and for family. However, the First Presidency implied that the ordinance should be limited to the woman’s immediate family. In contrast Eliza Snow said nothing of limiting administrations to the family and that only women who had been endowed might officiate.

In 1881 Emmeline B. Wells, editor of Woman’s Exponent and soon to be president of the Relief Society, questioned Wilford Woodruff on the topic of washings and anointings. He responded that the

ordinance of washing and anointing is one that should only be administered in Temples or other holy places which are dedicated for the purpose of giving endowments to the Saints … washing and anointing sisters who are approaching their confinement … is not, strictly speaking, an ordinance, unless it be done under the direction of the priesthood and in connection with the ordinance of laying on of hands for the restoration of the sick.

There is no impropriety in sisters washing and anointing their sisters in this way, … but it should be understood that they do this, not as members of the priesthood, but as members of the Church, exercising faith for, and asking the blessings of the Lord upon, their sisters, just as they, and every member of the Church, might do in behalf of the members of their families.27

President Woodruff distinguished between temple washings and anointings, the women’s practice of washing and anointing, and the priesthood ordinance of anointing in connection with healing. Still this confirmed that the same act was performed and very nearly the same words used in the temple and outside the temple by women, and by men administering to women. Thus the distinctions appeared to the average mind as confusing or shadowy.

Despite growing ambiguity as the nineteenth century closed, the leading sisters had successfully maintained their right to exercise the gift of blessing and had been supported by the church hierarchy. The twentieth century would see a definite shift.

Louisa “Lula” Greene Richards, former editor of Woman’s Exponent, wrote a somewhat terse letter to President Lorenzo Snow on 9 April 1901 concerning an article she had read in the Deseret News. It had stated: “Priest, Teacher or Deacon may administer to the sick, and so may a member, male or female, but neither of them [32] can seal the anointing and blessing, because the authority to do that is vested in the Priesthood after the order of Melchizedek.” Lula wrote:

If the information given in the answer is absolutely correct, then myself and thousands of other members of the Church have been misinstructed and are laboring under a very serious mistake, which certainly should be authoritatively corrected. Sister Eliza R. Snow Smith, from the Prophet Joseph Smith, her husband, taught the sisters in her day, that a very important part of the sacred ordinance of administrating to the sick was the sealing of the anointing and blessings, and should never be omitted. And we follow the pattern she gave us continually. We do not seal in the authority of the Priesthood, but in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.28

There is no record of Lorenzo Snow’s reply.

Over the next few years, an emerging definition of priesthood authority and an increased emphasis on its importance would remove spiritual responsibilities from women. The 1901 statement authorizing women’s blessings only signaled women’s dependence on that permission. Sometime during the first decade of the new century, the Relief Society circulated a letter called simply “Answers to Questions.” Undated, it ended with the notation: “Approved by the First Presidency of the Church.” It may have been a response to an unsigned 1903 Young Women’s Journal lesson that claimed “Only the higher or Melchisedek Priesthood has the right to lay on hands for the healing of the sick, or to direct the administration … though to pray for the sick is the right that necessarily belongs to every member of the Church.”29 This may be the earliest published claim that only male priesthood holders had authority to heal. However, the Relief Society’s letter insisted that any endowed woman had authority to perform blessings, although women were cautioned to avoid resemblances in language to temple ordinances. Sisters were told they did not need a priesthood holder to seal the blessing.

During that first decade of the twentieth century, a rare document—perhaps the only known example of its kind—emerged: the written form of a blessing to be pronounced in washing, anointing, and sealing before childbirth. The text of the blessing, undated, is contained in the 1901-1909 minutes of the Oakley (Idaho) Second [33] Ward Relief Society. Even though Joseph F. Smith had said that there was no special form for such occasions, the sisters were apparently more comfortable following a prescribed text. We do not know whether they followed the text exactly or deviated from it, but its very existence bespeaks an insistence that the words be used in a certain way and that the process be linked to the Relief Society. They did follow earlier counsel to avoid wording used in the temple, and the blessing and sealing are different in concept from the temple washing and anointing.

The words of the blessings for washing and anointing follow each other very closely with only occasional and minor changes. The blessings were specific and comprehensive:

We anoint you[r] back, your spinal column that you might be strong and healthy no disease fasten upon it no accident belaff [befall] you, Your kidneys that they might be active and healthy and perform their proper functions, your bladder that it might be strong and protected from accident, your Hips that your system might relax and give way for the birth of your child, your sides that you[r] liver, your lungs, and spleen that they might be strong and perform their proper functions … your breasts that your milk may come freely and you need not be afflicted with sore nipples as many are, your heart that it might be comforted.

They continue by requesting blessings from the Lord on the unborn child that it might be “perfect in every joint and limb and muscle, that it might be beautiful to look upon … [and] happy,” and that

when [its] full time shall have come that the child shall present right for birth and that the afterbirth shall come at its proper time … you need not flow to excess … We anoint … your thighs that they might be healthy and strong that you might be exempt from cramps and from the bursting of veins … That you might stand upon the earth [and] go in and out of the Temples of God.

The document combines the practical physiological considerations of neighborly concern with the reassuring solace and compassion of being anointed by sisters. The women sealed the blessing:

We unitedly lay our hands upon you to seal this washing and anointing where with you have been washed and anointed for your [34] safe delivery, for the salvation of you and your child and we ask God to let his special blessings to rest upon you, that you might sleep well at night that your dreams might be pleasant and that the good spirit might guard and protect you from every evil influence, spirit, and power that you may go your full time and that every blessing that we have asked God to confer upon you and your offspring may be litterly fulfiled that all fear and dread may be taken from you and that you might trust in God. All these blessings we united seal upon you in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.30

Evidence shows that this practice continued in similar form for several decades. In Cache Valley a 1910 Relief Society meeting was devoted to the topic of healing. President Lucy S. Cardon “read some instructions to the sisters on the washing and anointing this [sic] sick, and how it should be done properly,” adding a testimony of the importance of having the spirit of the Lord. One sister asked a question on “the sub[ject] of washing and anointing,” and Sister Martha Meedham, with brisk earthiness, answered that she had done “as much washing and anointing as anyone in this Stake … Said she had written to Pres. J. F. Smith on the sub. and he told her to keep on & bless & comfort as she had done in the past. It was a gift that was only given to a few, but all sisters who desired and are requested can perform this.” Relief Society president Margaret Ballard added “how she had been impressed to bless and administer to her father who was sick and suffering and he had been healed. Had also been impressed to bless her husband and he was healed.” The meeting closed appropriately with singing “Count Your Many Blessings.” Other testimonies borne that day included:

Sister Moench felt that we had had so much good said today. Said while she was very young she went out to wash and anoint the sick. Said Sister Richards had given them a foundation to go by and had said to get the spirit of the Lord then they would do right. Related an experience in blessing a child who had been given up by the doc and it got well. Know that if we get the faith and the spirit of God with us we can bless as well as the Brethren …

Pres. Hattie Hyde spoke of her experiences in Wyo. where the brethern had helped the sisters to bless and anoint the sick.

Sister R. Moench said that Pres. Young had said that the sisters need not be set apart for this calling but if they can call in any good brethern to seal the anointing so much the better.

[35] Pres. Lucy S. Cardan said they use to in the Temple have the brethern seal the anointing but now they do not. Knows that one sister can bless another. We have that privilege but when we can get the brethern we should have them seal the blessing.31

Another source confirms the practice “from the early 1930s” of Relief Society women in the Calgary Ward in Canada being washed and anointed before surgery or childbearing.32

With the coming of the twentieth century, the generation that had taught that women held priesthood in connection with their husbands was passing. An 1896 article in the Young Woman’s Journal reiterated a belief common among many church members that a missionary’s wife “bears the priesthood of the Seventy, in connection with her husband and shares in its responsibilities more closely and effectively than any other office of the priesthood entails upon womankind”—largely because she “bears the burdens of her husband’s absence, when all alone the cares of the family and home rest upon her.”33

In 1907 the Improvement Era published the query: “Does a wife hold the priesthood with her husband? and may she lay hands on the sick with him, with authority?” Speaking for a new generation, President Joseph F. Smith answered:

A wife does not hold the priesthood in connection with her husband, but she enjoys the benefits thereof with him; and if she is requested to lay hand on the sick with him, or with any other officer holding the Melchizedek priesthood, she may do so with perfect propriety. It is no uncommon thing for a man and wife unitedly to administer to their children, and the husband being mouth, he may properly say out of courtesy, “By authority of the holy priesthood in us vested.”34

Also, during the opening years of the twentieth century, a changing definition of priesthood emerged, bringing with it a redefinition of the role of women. In 1901 B. H. Roberts, a member of the third presiding quorum, the Seventies, lamented how “common” the priesthood seemed to be held and insisted that “respect for the Priesthood” went far beyond respecting the General Authorities to include “all those who hold the Priesthood … presidents of stakes … Bishops … the Priests, who teach the Gospel at the firesides of the people … and the humblest that holds that power.”35 Thus priesthood was defined not only as power from God but also as the man upon whom it was conferred. Statements such as this initiated the practice of referring to leaders and eventually to all male members as “the priesthood.” Joseph Fielding Smith, a young apostle in 1910, put the case even stronger in a conference talk on respecting the presiding brethren, particularly the First Presidency: “It is a serious thing for any member of this Church to raise his voice against the priesthood, or to hold the priesthood in disrespect; for the Lord will not hold such guiltless.”36

By 1913 it is evident that the priesthood—meaning, by this time, the authoritative structure of the church—had authority also over those gifts of the spirit that had once been the right of every member of the household of faith.

The Relief Society General Board minutes for 7 October 1913 record a growing concern of President Emmeline B. Wells: “In the early days in Nauvoo women administered to the sick and many were healed through their administration, and while some of the brethren do not approve of this, it is to be hoped the blessing will not be taken from us.”37 This seems to be the earliest acknowledgement that the hierarchy disapproved the practice.

That spring in April conference, President Joseph F. Smith had expressed his concern over the divisive tendency of various church organizations to act independent of the hierarchy. He placed the Relief Society among the auxiliaries—Sunday school, Primary, and young people’s Mutual Improvement Associations—rather than in its traditional position as a companion or parallel to the male priesthood quorums. The auxiliaries “are not independent,” he insisted:

“Not one of them is independent of the Priesthood of the Son of God, not one of them can exist a moment in the acceptance of the Lord when they withdraw from the voice and from the counsel of those who hold the Priesthood and preside over them. They are subject to the powers and authority of the Church, and they are not independent of them: nor can they exercise any rights in their organizations independently of the Priesthood and of the Church; and I want you to take it home to you now—every one of you. You may hear something stronger than that from me if you don’t.38

The Relief Society loyally responded with an article in the second number of its 1914 Bulletin, successor to the Woman’s Exponent and [37] predecessor of the Relief Society Magazine. Explaining that new officers and teachers needed orientation to the general rules of the organization, it commented that each group had “great liberty” in local arrangements but that “one rule … should be written deep in the heart of every woman in this kingdom—and coined frequently by those who hold office in this great organization, namely respect for the priesthood.” All systems have their law. The church has “the law of God” and defines priesthood as “the power to administer in the ordinances of the Gospel … associated with this Priesthood is the right of presidency. Out of this grows the functions and offices of the presiding authority; of the Church, and of every quorum in the Church. Those who preside over the auxiliary organizations receive their authority from the presiding Priesthood.”

“Women do not hold the Priesthood,” it continued, without making traditional qualifications. “This fact must be faced calmly by mothers and explained clearly to young women, for the spirit that is now abroad in the world makes for women’s demand for every place and office enjoyed by men, and a few more that men can’t enter. Women in this Church must not forget that they have rights which men do not possess.” The writer does not specify these. The address further assures women that even the superior woman will marry “the right one,” identifiable because “he will be just one or more degrees superior in intelligence and power to the superior woman.” In any case if he holds the priesthood, “women everywhere, as men who may be under his jurisdiction, should render that reverence and obedience that belongs of right to the Priesthood which he holds.”

After assuring readers that this article was “only repeating the same things that have been told in this organization” by Eliza R. Snow, Zina D. Young, and Bathsheba W. Smith, the writer reversed the policy of solving women’s problems within the Relief Society hierarchy as enunciated by Eliza Snow in 1884. It advised women that the general office of the Relief Society would gladly answer questions from the field, including those on “washing and anointing the sick, … yet any and all of these questions might be referred to the ward or stake Priesthood and their answers should be taken as final.”39 The message could not be clearer. The Relief Society had been firmly subordinated to the Melchizedek priesthood as an auxiliary.

[38] An October 1914 letter to bishops and stake presidents from President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors established an official policy on “washing and anointing our sisters preparatory to their confinement.” Though little of the information was new, it was the first time such a statement had not come from the Relief Society. After affirming that sisters may wash, anoint, seal anointings, and bless a woman prior to giving birth, the letter stated: “It should, however, always be remembered that the command of the Lord is to call in the elders to administer to the sick, and when they can be called in, they should be asked to anoint the sick or seal the anointing.” Differentiation was thus made between “woman’s work” of giving birth and the more general human problem of illness. The letter stated that women who had received their temple endowments were generally stronger in the faith and especially qualified to wash and anoint other women prior to confinement. But the directive made clear that this act could be performed by any “good faithful sisters” who were requested.

The concluding paragraph resolved the question of who is empowered to decide policy on these issues: “In all sacred functions performed by our sisters there should be perfect harmony between them and the Bishop, who has the direction of all matters pertaining to the Church in his ward.”40 No longer strictly under Relief Society supervision, a link which had existed from Eliza R. Snow’s day between the women in the ward and the presiding women of the church was cautiously being severed.

By 1921 statements concerning women and their relationship to the priesthood had become increasingly narrow. In April conference, Rudger Clawson of the Quorum of the Twelve told church members: “The Priesthood is not received, or held, or exercised in any degree, by the women of the Church; but nevertheless, the women of the Church enjoy the blessings of the Priesthood through their husbands.”41 Later in the same conference, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency referred to Elder Clawson’s remarks and added his own commentary:

There seems to be a revival of the idea among some of our sisters that they hold the priesthood … When a woman is sealed to a man holding the Priesthood, she becomes one with him … She receives blessings in association with him … Sisters have said to me [39] sometimes, “But, I hold the Priesthood with my husband.” “Well,” I asked, “what office do you hold in the Priesthood?” Then they could not say much more. The sisters are not ordained to any office in the Priesthood and there is authority in the Church which they cannot exercise: it does not belong to them; they cannot do that properly any more than they can change themselves into a man.”42

Although he did not clarify a great deal, President Penrose conveyed the impression that priesthood does not exist apart from priesthood office.

Penrose reported women asking him “if they did not have the right to administer to the sick” and he, quoting Jesus’ promise to his apostles of the signs that follow believers, conceded that there might be

occasions when perhaps it would be wise for a woman to lay her hands upon a child, or upon one another sometimes, and there have been appointments made for our sisters, some good women, to anoint and bless others of their sex who expect to go through times of great personal trial, travail and “labor;” so that is all right, so far as it goes. But when women go around and declare that they have been set apart to administer to the sick and take the place that is given to the elders of the Church by revelation as declared through James of old, and through the Prophet Joseph in modern times, that is an assumption of authority and contrary to scripture, which is that when people are sick they shall call for the elders of the Church and they shall pray over them and officially lay hands on them.43

Joseph Smith had cited the same scripture in the 12 April 1842 Relief Society meeting with a far different interpretation: “These signs … should follow all that believe whether male or female.”44

Another categorization came in 1922 when the First Presidency, then consisting of Heber J. Grant, Charles W. Penrose, and Anthony W. Ivins, issued a circular letter defining the purposes of each auxiliary. The Relief Society was first: “Women, not being heirs to the priesthood except as they enjoy and participate in the blessings through their husbands, are not identified with the priesthood quorums.”45 The pattern of removing women from the realm of anything associated with the role of male priesthood was established, clarified, and validated.

[40] The strength of this pattern can be seen through a letter from Martha A. Hickman of Logan, who in 1935 wrote to the Relief Society general president, Louise Yates Robison, asking if it was “orthodox and sanctioned” for the women to perform washings and anointings of women about to give birth: “We have officiated in this capacity some ten years, have enjoyed our calling, and been appreciated. However since … questions [about “orthodoxy”] have arisen we do not feel quite at ease. We would like to be in harmony, as well as being able to inform correctly those seeking information.”46

Sister Robison answered the query through Martha Hickman’s stake Relief Society president in Logan:

In reference to the question raised [by Martha Hickman], may we say that this beautiful ordinance has always been with the Relief Society, and it is our earnest hope that we may continue to have that privilege, and up to the present time the Presidents of the Church have always allowed it to us. There are some places, however, where a definite stand against it has been taken by the Priesthood Authorities, and where such is the case we cannot do anything but accept their will in the matter. However, where the sisters are permitted to do this for expectant mothers we wish it done very quietly, and without any infringement upon the Temple Service. It is in reality a mother’s blessing, and we do not advocate the appointment of any committees to have this in charge, but any worthy good sister is eligible to perform this service if she has faith, and is in good standing in the Church. It is something that should be treated very carefully, and as we have suggested, with no show or discussion made of it.

We have written to Sister Hickman and told her to consult you in this matter, as it is always our custom to discuss matters of this kind with our Stake [Relief Society] Presidents, and have them advise the sisters in their Wards.47

The next year Joseph Fielding Smith, soon to become president of the Quorum of the Twelve, wrote to Belle S. Spafford, new Relief Society general president, and her counselors, Marianne C. Sharp and Gertrude R. Garff: “While the authorities of the Church have ruled that it is permissible, under certain conditions and with the approval of the priesthood, for sisters to wash and anoint other sisters, yet they feel that it is far better for us to follow the plan the Lord has given us and send for the Elders of the Church to come [41] and administer to the sick and afflicted.”48 It would certainly be difficult for a sister to say that she did not wish to follow “the plan the Lord has given us” by asking for administrations from sisters rather than elders.

Joseph Fielding Smith officially ended women’s blessings where they had not already stopped. Although some modern cases have recently come to light,49 there is no evidence of blessings being given in conjunction with the Relief Society. Other pronouncements by church leaders have further stressed the exclusive duties of male priesthood holders. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., a member of the First Presidency, defined the priesthood in 1940 as, “the authority of God bestowed upon men to represent Him in certain relationships between and among men and between men and God.” But in the remainder of his talk President Clark referred to himself and other male members as “the Priesthood” rather than as men with priesthood authority, power, or callings.50

In 1952 Stephen L Richards, first counselor in the First Presidency, reaffirmed that “a woman does not hold the priesthood, but she shares it with her husband, and she is the immediate beneficiary of many of its great blessings. When she unites in marriage with a man of the priesthood in one of the temples of the kingdom, the blessings pronounced upon her are of equal import to those given her husband, and these blessings are to be realized only through the enduring compact of the marriage.”51 In 1956 when Apostle Marion G. Romney spoke of spiritual gifts, he made no mention of women: “Righteous men, bearing the holy priesthood of the living God and endowed with the gift of the Holy Ghost, who are magnifying their callings … are the only men upon the earth with the right to receive and exercise the gifts of the spirit.”52

Apostle John A. Widtsoe’s influential revision of his Priesthood and Church Government announced that “spiritual gifts are properly enjoyed by the Saints of God under the direction of ‘such as God shall appoint and ordain over the Church’—that is, the Priesthood and its officers.” His discussion of revelation, discernment, healing, translation, and power over evil makes no acknowledgment that these gifts may exist outside the male priesthood quorums.

About women Elder Widtsoe wrote the oft-quoted passage: “The man who arrogantly feels that he is better than his wife because he [42] holds the Priesthood has failed utterly to comprehend the meaning and purpose of Priesthood.” Why? Because “the Lord loves His daughters quite as well as His sons,” and “men can never rise superior to the women who bear and nurture them,” and “woman has her gift of equal magnitude—motherhood.”53

From the 1950s to the early 1980s, equal citizenship for women was replaced by glorification of motherhood, ignoring both single or childless women and fatherhood as the equivalent of motherhood. Limiting the definition of priesthood to chiefly ecclesiastical and administrative functions has tended to limit the roles of both sexes. Anything traditionally considered “male” has come to be attached exclusively to priesthood, and this emphasis stresses—even magnifies—the differences between the sexes rather than expanding the roles of both.

While it can be argued that the mother’s functions of pregnancy, birth, and nursing are balanced by the father’s naming, blessing, baptizing, confirming, and ordaining his children, these acts do not remove from the father the responsibility of day-to-day nurturing. And even though the father normally witnesses the birth of his children, the mother is not invited into the blessing circles. If women do indeed hold the priesthood with their husbands, their presence should be welcomed. Responsibilities of fathering are being increasingly stressed by church teachers, moving us toward a more inclusive priesthood model: brotherhood-sisterhood, motherhood-fatherhood, all functioning in the larger realm of shared priesthood.

The motherhood-priesthood equivalence ignores the fact that women from the beginnings of church history did not sacrifice their important role as mothers while participating fully in the spiritual gifts of the gospel. Nor is there evidence to suggest that women’s spiritual activities or their independence within the Relief Society organization in any way diminished men’s priesthood powers or their exercise of them.

In the extreme this attitude toward women has led to views such as those in Rodney Turner’s address “Woman and the Prisethood,” delivered at a BYU six-stake fireside in 1966. Turner asserted, “The stewardship of woman is encircled in the stewardship of man … Woman therefore finds her fulfillment in man as man finds his in God.” The ultimate degradation appeared in four lines of doggerel, [43] purportedly written by a woman: “Women are doormats and have been/ The years those mats applaud—/ They keep their men from going in/ With muddy feet to God.” Turner commented, “I am afraid that this is only too true. A man needs that kind of support so that he can go back home without muddy feet.”54 Although Turner diffused some of this rhetoric in his book Woman and the Priesthood, it became a standard resource for many.

Although many works designed to explain the “exalted place” of Mormon women have since appeared, they are usually historically shallow. The most ambitious, Oscar W. McConkie’s She Shall Be Called Woman, asserts that the eternal nature of women is different in essence from that of men, that women’s primary role in life (and chief contribution to the church) is motherhood, that women have “great[er] sensitivity to spiritual truths” and that righteous husbands are “the saviour of the wives.” Still he acknowledges the equal responsibility of fathers in rearing children and states “many of the brethren, who are otherwise disciplined Christians, exercise unrighteous dominion over women.”55 However, in January 1981 James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve told a group of Mormon psychotherapists: “The priesthood is not just male- or husband-centered, but reaches its potential only in the eternal relationship of the husband and the wife sharing and administering these great blessings to the family.”56 Daniel Ludlow wrote in the December 1980 Ensign, “The gift of prophecy is a special spiritual endowment that is available to every worthy member of the church.” Then he quoted Elder George Q. Cannon’s statement that “the genius of the kingdom [is] … to make every man a prophet and every woman a prophetess, that they may understand the plans and purposes of God.”57

For LDS women the pendulum has swung from Joseph Smith’s prophetic vision of women as queens and priestesses to Rodney Turner’s metaphor of women as doormats. Statements such Elder Faust’s and Daniel Ludlow’s may signal a theological reevaluation of woman’s role. A rediscovery of the history of Mormon women’s spiritual gifts has awakened interest in the idea of mothers and fathers jointly anointing and blessing their own children; of husbands receiving, like Wilford Woodruff, blessings from their wives58; of mothers standing in the circle when their babies are blessed; of [44] women blessing each other or their children (a mother’s blessing) in times of need; of women as well as men jointly exercising spiritual gifts on behalf of each other. A broader, more inclusive understanding of priesthood could strengthen marital and family ties and once again allow unmarried women to share more fully in the gifts of the spirit which were once common in the household of faith. This could mean a reexamination of the LDS policy of ordaining women to priesthood offices or it could simply mean making changes in the General Handbook of Instruction which has stripped women of these opportunities through the accumulation of over a hundred years of revisionist policy development. But until then Susa Young Gates’s statement still rings clear: “The privileges and powers outlined by the Prophet [Joseph Smith] … have never been granted to women in full even yet.”


Linda King Newell co-authored Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith and is former co-editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. She resides in Salt Lake City with her husband. “The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood” is reprinted from Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Fall 1985): 21-32, and includes material from “Gifts of the Spirit: Women’s Share,” in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, eds. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).

1. Cf. 1 Cor. 12:8-10, where Paul’s list included “the word of wisdom, … the word of knowledge, … faith, … the gifts of healing, … the working of miracles, … prophecy, … discerning of spirits, … divers kinds of tongues, … [and] the interpretation of tongues.”

2. Joseph Smith, in History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), 1:33 (hereafter HC). For additional discussion of women participating in healing in Kirtland, see Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, “Sweet Counsel and Seas of Tribulation: The Religious Life of the Women in Kirtland,” Brigham Young University Studies 20 (Winter 1980): 151-62. See also my “Gifts of the Spirit: Women’s Share” and “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women,” Sunstone 6 (Sept./Oct. 1981): 16-26.

3. George A. Smith, 18 Mar. 1855, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Franklin D. Richards, et al., 1855-86), 2:215.

4. Caroline Barnes Crosby, Journal, n.d., n.p., holograph in Utah State Historical Society, microfilm of original and typescript in Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (hereafter LDS archives).

5. History of Sarah Studevant Leavitt, copied from her history by Juanita Leavitt, 1919 (n.p., n.d.), 9-10.

6. Joseph Smith, Sr., in Carol Lynn Pearson’s Daughters of Light (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973), 65.

7. Minutes of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, 17 Mar. 1842, microfilm of holograph, Joseph Smith Collection (hereafter Minutes), LDS archives.

8. Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” Brigham Young University Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 458.

9. Minutes, 28 Apr. 1842.

10. Seventies Record, 9 Mar. 1845, typescript in my possession.

11. Eliza R. Snow, Journal, 2 Feb. 1846-4 Apr. 1847, 1 Jan., 2 Feb., 14 Mar. 1847, autograph, Huntington Libraries, San Marino, California; photocopy of typescript in my possession.

12. Eliza Jane Merrick, “Several Cases of Miraculous Healing by the Power of God,” Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 2 (1 July 1849): 205.

13. Mary Ellen Kimball, Journal, 2 Mar. 1857, LDS archives.

14. Scott Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1983), 4:244.

15. George Goddard, Diary 1875-76, 8 Sept. 1875, LDS archives.

16. Brigham Young, 14 Nov. 1869, JD 13:155.

17. Cache Valley Stake Relief Society Minutes, 1868-81, 18 June 1868, LDS archives.

18. Ruth M. Fox, “Emmeline B. Wells: A Tribute,” Young Woman’s Journal 32 (June 1921): 346.

19. Orson Pratt, 26 Mar. 1876, JD 18:171.

20. Guy Messiah Keysor, Reminiscences and Journal, 2 Jan. 1857, 40-41, photocopy, LDS archives. For other examples of Eliza R. Snow’s role as “prophetess,” see Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, “The Eliza Enigma: The Life and Legend of Eliza R. Snow,” in Essays on the American West, 1974-1975, ed. Thomas G. Alexander, Charles Redd Monographs in Western History, no. 6 (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1974-75), 34-39.

21. HC 2:6. Statements such as this are sometimes dismissed as references to the church’s highest ordinance, the “second anointing” or “fulness of the priesthood,” but that ordinance does in fact confer priesthood power on women.

22. Sarah M. Kimball, Fifteenth Ward Relief Society Minutes, 1868-73, “Duty of Officers F. R. Society written by S. M. Kimball revised by E. R. Snow,” 1868, LDS archives.

23. Journal of Discourses 21:367-68.

24. Zina Diantha Huntington Smith Young, Diaries, 15 Mar. 1890, LDS archives.

25. As reported in Woman’s Exponent 13 (15 Sept. 1884): 61.

26. Eliza R. Snow, Woman’s Exponent 13 (15 Sept. 1884): 61.

27. Wilford Woodruff to Emmeline B. Wells, 27 Apr. 1888, Correspondence of the First Presidency, LDS archives.

28. Louisa L. G. Richards to Lorenzo Snow, 9 Apr. 1901, LDS archives.

29. “Gifts of the Spirit: Healing the Sick,” Young Women’s Journal 14 (8 Aug. 1903): 384.

30. Oakley [Idaho] 2d Ward Relief Society Minutes, vol. 1, 1901-1909, 195-97, LDS archives.

31. Cache Valley Stake Relief Society Minutes 1881-1914, 5 Mar. 1910, 438-40, LDS archives.

32. Lucile H. Ursenbach, statement, 14 Aug. 1980, in possession of Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, used with permission.

33. A. J., “The Seventy’s Wife,” Young Woman’s Journal 7 (June 1896): 398.

34. Joseph F. Smith, “Question and Answers,” Improvement Era 10 (Feb. 1907): 308.

35. Conference Report of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1901), 58 (hereafter Conference Report).

36. Ibid., 7 Oct. 1910, 39.

37. Relief Society Minutes, 4:124.

38. Conference Report, 4 Apr. 1913, 7.

39. Relief Society Bulletin 1 (Feb. 1914): 1-3.

40. Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, Charles W. Penrose, “To the Presidents of Stakes and Bishops of Wards,” Messages of the First Presidency, ed. James R. Clark, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1935-51), 4:314-15. It reads in full as follows:

Questions are frequently asked in regard to washing and anointing our sisters preparatory to their confinement … We quote some of these questions and give our answers:

1. Is it necessary for one or more sisters to be set apart to wash and anoint the sick?

2. Should it be done under the direction of the Relief Society?

Answer: Any good sister full of faith in God and in the efficacy of prayer may officiate. It is therefore not necessary for anyone to be set apart for this purpose, or that it should be done exclusively under the direction of the Relief Society.

3. Must the sister officiating be a member of the Relief Society?

Answer: It is conceded that most of our sisters, qualified to perform this service and gifted with the spirit of healing and the power to inspire faith in the sick, belong to the Relief Society [and] desire to have some good sister who is not a member of the Relief Society administer to her, that sister has the right to so administer.

4. Have the sisters the right to administer to sick children?

Answer: Yes; they have the same right to administer to sick children as to adults, and may anoint and lay hands upon them in faith.

5. Should the administering and anointing be sealed?

Answer: It is proper for sisters to lay on hands, using a few simple words, avoiding the terms employed in the temple, and instead of using the word “seal” use the word “confirm.”

6. Have the sisters a right to seal the washing and anointing, using the authority, but doing it in the name of Jesus Christ, or should men holding the priesthood be called in?

Answer: The sisters have the privilege of laying their hands on the head of the person for whom they are officiating, and confirming and anointing in the spirit of invocation. The Lord has heard and answered the prayers of sisters in these administrations many times. It should, however, always be remembered that the command of the Lord is to call in the elders to administer to the sick, and when they can be called in, they should be asked to anoint the sick or seal the anointing.

7. Are sisters who have not received their endowments competent to wash and anoint sisters previous to confinement?

Answer: It must always be borne in mind that this administering to the sick by the sisters is in no sense a temple ordinance, and no one is allowed to use the words learned in the temple in washing and anointing the sick. Sisters who have had their endowments have received instructions and blessings which tend to give them stronger faith and especially qualify them to officiate in this sacred work; but there are good faithful sisters, who through circumstances have not received their endowments, and yet are full of faith and have had much success in ministering to the sick, who should not be forbidden to act, if desired to do so by our sisters.

In conclusion we have to say that in all sacred functions performed by our sisters there should be perfect harmony between them and the Bishop, who has the direction of all matters pertaining to the Church in his ward.

41. Conference Report, Apr. 1921, 24-25.

42. Ibid., 198.

43. Ibid.

44. Relief Society Minutes of Nauvoo, 12 Apr. 1842.

45. Clark, Messages, 5:216.

46. Martha A. Hickman to Louise Y. Robison, 28 Nov. 1935, LDS Archives.

47. Louise Y. Robison and Julia A. F. Lund to Mrs. Ada E. Morrell, 5 Dec. 1935, copy in possession of the author.

48. Clark, Messages, 4:314.

49. Since publication of part of this essay as “A Gift Given, a Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing, and Blessing the Sick among Mormon Women,” Sunstone 6 (Sept./Oct. 1981): 16-25, about ten women have told me of their experiences in exercising spiritual gifts. One woman gathered her sister’s frail cancer-ridden body in her arms and blessed her with one pain-free day. Two other women, in separate instances, each blessed and healed a child in her care. Neither of these women had ever discussed the blessing with anyone before for fear it would be considered “inappropriate.” And several women together blessed a close friend just prior to her having a hysterectomy. Others asked that their experience not be mentioned—again fearing that what had been personal and sacred to them would be misunderstood and viewed as inappropriate by others. Of course the same kinds of blessings, when performed by priesthood holders, are commonly told in church meetings as faith-promoting experiences and are accepted by members of the church in that spirit.

50. Conference Report, Apr. 1940, 152-54.

51. Conference Report, 5 Oct. 1952, 99-10.

52. Conference Report, Apr. 1956, 72.

53. John A. Widtsoe, Priesthood and Church Government (1939; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, rev. 1954), 38-39, 89-90.

54. Rodney Turner, Woman and the Priesthood (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1966); also Woman and the Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972).

55. Oscar W. McConkie, She Shall Be Called Woman (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979), 117, 4, 124.

56. James E. Faust, “Psychotherapists, Love Your Wives,” AMCAP Journal (Jan. 1981): 4-6, 30-32.

57. Daniel H. Ludlow, “I Have a Question,” Ensign 10 (Dec. 1980): 31.

58. Conference Report, Oct. 1910, 20; Oct. 1919, 31.