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Gospel Topics Essay: Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women

Gospel Topics Essay: Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women

By Eric Johnson

To see an introduction to the Gospel Topics essays, click here.

The entire essay is printed below, underlined, with my commentary included throughout. Because I will try to be short and to the point as much as possible,  a number of sites (many from MRM) to support my disagreement are included. I encourage interested readers to consider these sources. 

Women and men enjoy many opportunities for service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both within local congregations and at the Churchwide level. Among other things, Latter-day Saint women preach sermons in Sunday meetings and the Church’s general conference; serve full-time proselytizing missions; perform and officiate in holy rites in the Church’s temples; and lead organizations that minister to families, other women, young women, and children. They participate in priesthood councils at the local and general levels. Professional women teach Latter-day Saint history and theology at Church universities and in the Church’s educational programs for youth.

It is obvious that the author of this essay is diverting the issue. Because they can “participate” in missions and councils while teaching theology, this doesn’t mean LDS females have full “authority” in the LDS Church. Men are the only ones who have the authority of the Aaronic priesthood and Melchizedek priesthood. This diversionary tactic is meant to appease the critics–especially those inside the church–by showing how much LDS women are allowed to do.  Listen to a similar spin delivered by Apostle Dallin H. Oaks in a general conference talk:

We are not accustomed to speaking of women having the authority of the priesthood in their Church callings, but what other authority can it be? When a woman—young or old—is set apart to preach the gospel as a full-time missionary, she is given priesthood authority to perform a priesthood function. The same is true when a woman is set apart to function as an officer in a Church organization under the direction of one who holds the keys of the priesthood. Whoever functions in an office or calling received from one who holds priesthood keys exercises priesthood authority to performing her or his assigned duties (Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2014, p. 51).

While it is true that females in Mormonism work under the priesthood authority as administered by men. But a woman does not  have “priesthood authority” on her own that could, for instance, affect her own salvation. Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith laid it out in no uncertain terms when he wrote,

Women do not hold the priesthood, but if they are faithful and true, they will become priestesses and queens in the kingdom of God, and that implies that they will be given authority. The women do not hold the priesthood with their husbands, but they do reap the benefits coming from that priesthood (Doctrines of Salvation 3:178. Italics in original).

The only way to obtain full salvation is through the priesthood, as explained by twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball:

Priesthood is the means to exaltation. The priesthood is the power and authority of God delegated to man on earth to act in all things pertaining to the salvation of men. It is the means whereby the Lord acts through men to save souls. Without this priesthood power, men are lost. Only through this power does man “hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church,” enabling him to receive “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened” unto him (see D&C 107:18-19), enabling him to enter the new and everlasting covenant of marriage and to have his wife and children bound to him in an everlasting tie, enabling him to become a patriarch to his posterity forever, and enabling him to receive a fullness of the blessings of the Lord (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 494).

How does a woman receive this priesthood? A church manual provides the necessary ingredient:

A woman can receive the blessings of the Melchizedek Priesthood by receiving the ordinances of the gospel and by being married to a righteous priesthood holder. The blessings that come into a home when a man magnifies his priesthood affect his wife as much as they affect him. Perhaps the most important way a woman participates in the blessings of the priesthood is by receiving her endowment and being married in the temple (Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood: Basic Manual for Priesthood Holders, Part B, 2000, pp. 31-33)

Even if a woman gets married in the temple is not a guarantee that she will be called from the grave by her spouse. Imagine how many women are married to men who are not worthy. Some may have been faithful only to leave the “one true church.” A leader such as George Q. Cannon have taught this is a dangerous position for the woman:

According to our faith no woman should be connected with a man who cannot save her in the Celestial Kingdom of God. What I mean by this is: if a man apostatizes and breaks covenants and loses his standing in the Church of Christ, he is not in a fit condition to save himself, much less to lead his wife aright. He cannot lead her in the path of exaltation, because he has turned aside from that path; he has gone into another path. If she follow him, she will follow him to destruction; she will take the downward road. She will never find, while following him, and he in that condition, the path of salvation (November 16, 1884, Journal of Discourses 25:368).

Protestant Christianity holds to the “priesthood of the believer.” This term was a major rallying cry of the Reformation five centuries ago. It is something that cannot be negotiated. Contrasting Christians with the rest of the “world” (who “knew him [God] not”), 1 John 3:1 says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Paul distinguished between “children of the flesh” and “children of God” in Romans 9:8. Galatians 3:26 says it is “by faith in Christ Jesus” that believers become children of God, while John 1:12 says that “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” It is, John says, not something that comes automatically through a natural birth; it is something only received through faith.

A royal priesthood is provided to all Christian believers. First Peter 2:9–10 states that Christians “are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people . . . [who] now have obtained mercy.” Even though individual Christians are priests in this spiritual manner, they are called to offer themselves as “living sacrifice[s]” to God (Rom. 12:1). As holders of this priesthood, believers are commanded to stand and intercede for people, not to offer blood sacrifices for the cleansing of their sins but to pray that they might turn to the one who cleanses from sin, namely, Christ Jesus.

While Mormonism offers the priesthood only to males, the New Testament makes no such distinction when it comes to the authority available through whom God has called to Himself, this authority is available to all believers, regardless of gender. Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is this priesthood, held by all Christians, that provides authority to pray directly to the God of this universe, to boldly proclaim the gospel truth wherever they go, and to know that when they die they will enjoy eternal life with God. There is no greater authority than this.

While it might seem quaint and perhaps even romantic that a man needs a woman and, vice versa, the woman needs a man to enter the celestial kingdom, this is not a biblical teaching. Marriage is certainly encouraged, but it is never for the obtaining of eternal life. In an account given in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus was approached by members of the Sadducees, the Jewish religious party that did not believe in a bodily resurrection from the dead (Matt. 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–38). Trying to trick Him, these leaders presented what appears to be a hypothetical situation involving seven brothers. When the oldest brother died, he left a wife and no children. According to the Mosaic law, the next oldest unmarried brother took the woman for his wife. However, the second brother died, as did the third through seventh brothers. Before they died, each of them had married the oldest brother’s wife, making her a widow seven times over.

In Mark 12:23 they asked, “In the resurrection, when they rise again,whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” Jesus chastised His inquisitors in verse 24, saying they did not know the Scriptures. Verse 25 reads, “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” At face value and as it has been historically interpreted, Jesus appears to be saying that heaven will be much different from life as it is known on earth. While the gifts of sex and procreation are important parts of the earthly life, these will not be a part of the afterlife. The joys in store for the believer are incredibly more magnificent than the temporary pleasure of sexual or familial fulfillment.

In addition, there will be no need to procreate in heaven. Thus, while it appears we will be able to recognize fellow believers in heaven, there is no indication from the Bible that humans will be eternally paired with particular mates. Historically, Christians view all believers as part of God’s great family rather than millions of smaller groups. However, Mormon leaders have interpreted this passage quite differently than the historic Christian view. McConkie wrote:

What then is the Master Teacher affirming by saying, “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven”? He is not denying but limiting the prevailing concept that there will be marrying and giving in marriage in heaven. He is saying that as far as “they” (the Sadducees) are concerned, that as far as “they” (“the children of this world”) are concerned, the family unit does not and will not continue in the resurrection. Because he does not choose to cast his pearls before swine, and because the point at issue is not marriage but resurrection anyway, Jesus does not here amplify his teaching to explain that there is marrying and giving of marriage in heaven only for those who live the fulness of gospel law—a requirement which excludes worldly people (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:605-6).

Because only men are ordained to priesthood office, however, questions have arisen about women’s standing in the Church. This essay provides relevant historical context for these important questions and explains Joseph Smith’s teachings about women and priesthood authority.

The restoration of priesthood authority through the Prophet Joseph Smith is a fundamental doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Early in his ministry, Joseph Smith received priesthood authority from heavenly messengers; with that authority, he organized the Church, conferred priesthood upon other men, and ordained them to offices in the priesthood.

According to historian D. Michael Quinn, there was no evidence about the specific Aaronic and Melchizedek  priesthoods until 1834-35. He writes:

A closer look at contemporary records indicates that men were first ordained to the higher priesthood over a year after the church’s founding. No mention of angelic ordinations can be found in original documents until 1834-35. Thereafter accounts of the visit of Peter, James, and John by Cowdery an Smith remained vague and contradictory. The distance between traditional accounts of LDS priesthood beginnings and the differing story of early documents points to retrospective changes made in the public record to create a story of logical and progressive development. For example, as now published in the D&C 68:15 a revelation of November 1831 referred to ‘the Melchizedek Priesthood.’ However, the original text of the 1831 revelation did not contain that priesthood phrase which was a retroactive addition in 1835. The first evidence of angelic restoration in public discussion comes from Cowdery in 1834. Cowdery confirms the idea of one priesthood at the church’s organization and indirectly suggests that Smith and he had not yet encountered Peter, James, and John or the ‘higher’ priesthood in April 1830 (The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, p. 15).

Quinn says that Cowdery’s discussion of this priesthood “was the first time Mormons learned that a heavenly conferral of authority occurred before the church’s organization” (Ibid.) According to Quinn, “accounts of a second priesthood restoration began appearing the year after Cowdery’s 1834 history.” One D&C revelation that was dated August 1830 (now D&C 27) that mentions the 1829 visit of John the Baptist conferring the Aaronic priesthood. It continues by mentioned Peter, James and John. However,

these phrases about John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John had not appeared when the revelation was first published in 1832 in The Evening and the Morning Star or in the 1833 Book of Commandments. A recent study has demonstrated that the center portion on priesthood (now D&C 27:6-13) is also missing from the revelation’s only manuscript. The added text cannot be found in any document before 1835, nor can any similar working or concept be found prior to 1834 (Ibid., p. 16).

For something as important at the commissioning of the Aaronic Priesthood to Smith and Cowdery by John the Baptist or the Melchizedek Priesthood by Peter, James, and John to not any provenance before 1834 is certainly problematic and certainly suggests that these priesthoods were later inventions. If these events really took place, as Mormons believe today, then how can they explain the silence for five or more years regarding these events that gave priesthood authority to Latter-day Saint men.

By this same authority, Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society as part of the structure of the Church, which formally defined and authorized a major aspect of women’s ministry. All this was done to prepare the Saints to participate in the ordinances of the temple, which were introduced soon after the founding of the Relief Society. At the time of his death, the revelatory vision imparted to Joseph Smith was securely in place: women and men could receive and administer sacred priesthood ordinances in holy temples, which would help prepare them to enter the presence of God one day.

The Women’s Relief Society, as headed by his wife Emma, was a place for women to congregate. It certainly was not a place where women had priesthood authority. Women needed men to provide them with the authority to attain the celestial kingdom. Without the man’s authority and his calling her up from the grave, she could never enter into the Celestial kingdom. Apostle Erastus Snow taught,

Do you uphold your husband before God as your lord? “What!— my husband to be my lord?” I ask, Can you get into the celestial kingdom without him? Have any of you been there? You will remember that you never got into the celestial kingdom without the aid of your husband. If you did, it was because your husband was away, and some one had to act proxy for him. No woman will get into the celestial kingdom, except her husband receives her, if she is worthy to have a husband; and if not, somebody will receive her as a servant” (October 4, 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:291).

It is the man’s responsible to call his wife up from the grave. Apostle Charles W. Penrose wrote:

In the divine economy, as in nature, the man “is the head of the woman,” and it is written that “he is the savior of the body.” But “the man is not without the woman” any more than the woman is without the man, in the Lord. Adam was first formed, then Eve. In the resurrection, they stand side by side and hold dominion together. Every man who overcomes all things and is thereby entitled to inherit all things, receives power to bring up his wife to join him in the possession and enjoyment thereof. In the case of a man marrying a wife in the everlasting covenant who dies while he continues in the flesh and marries another by the same divine law, each wife will come forth in her order and enter with him into his glory. (“Mormon” Doctrine Plain and Simple, or Leaves from the Tree of Life, 1897, p. 66)

Referring to the early temple ceremony, William Clayton, who served as Joseph Smith’s secretary, provides more details:

Clayton described the temple endowment, a ritualized drama of the creation, fall, and redemption of Adam, during which its participants promise obedience and loyalty to the church, and repeat passwords and signs they believe will enable them to enter into the celestial or highest kingdom of heaven. He wrote about washings and anointings, preparatory rituals for the endowment ceremony, and described dramatic role-playing in which church members act out the Garden of Eden story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent.

As church members rehearsed this celestial drama, they wore special clothing and volunteered the necessary words and signs to enter the highest heaven, the Celestial Kingdom. Clayton recorded that “The tokens and covenants are . . . the key by which you approach God and be recognized.” In this ceremony, each husband escorted his wife through a veil, calling her by a “new temple name.” The woman’s salvation would depend upon her husband’s priesthood authority. Clayton reported Brigham Young saying that “the man must love his God and the woman must love her husband,” adding that “woman will never get back, unless she follows the man back.” (George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, pp. xxxvi-xxxvii; see also pp. 204-240.)

For more on this topic, see the following article on the UTLM website.

Early Latter-day Saint Understandings of Priesthood

The restoration of priesthood authority came at a time of intense religious excitement in the United States. This excitement was driven in part by questions about divine authority—who had it, how it was obtained, and whether it was necessary. In the early 19th century, most Christians believed that the authority to act in God’s name had remained on the earth since the time of Jesus’s mortal ministry. Joseph Smith taught that Christ’s priesthood was lost after the deaths of the ancient apostles and had been newly restored through angelic ministration.

The entire purpose of the LDS Church, taught thoroughly from the very beginning of the Mormon Church, was to “restore” the priesthood authority that supposedly was lost soon after the death of the apostles. This is what has been called the “great apostasy.” The idea is based on the First Vision account  as taught by Joseph Smith in Joseph Smith-History 1. Claiming to have seen God the Father and Jesus, Smith claims to have asked God which church was true. He said he was told in verses 19-20:

 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”  He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.

This apostasy had great ramifications. Thirteenth President Ezra Taft Benson explained,

As the restored Church, we affirm that with the passing of the apostolic age, the Church drifted into a condition of apostasy, that succession in the priesthood was broken, and that the Church, as an earthly organization operating under divine direction and having authority to officiate in spiritual ordinances, ceased to exist. This is attested by history. We affirm also that all this was foreseen and predicted by the apostles when they were living, yea, and by the Master in his day. The apostasy had started during the days of the Apostles, and was referred to frequently by them (Conference Reports, October 1949, p. 26).

Apostle James Talmage wrote,

We affirm that with the passing of the apostolic period the Church drifted into a condition of apostasy, whereby succession in the Holy Priesthood was broken; and that the Church as an earthly organization operating under Divine direction and having authority to officiate in spiritual ordinances ceased to exist among men (The Vitality of Mormonism, pp. 109-110).

Those who do not belong to Mormonism do not have priesthood authority because the chain was broken soon after the death of the apostles. Seventy B.H. Roberts wrote, “Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” (History of the Church 1:XL). While Mormon leaders today are more politically correct than the earlier brash leaders, this hasn’t always been the case when discussing the “Christianity” of those outside their faith.  Brigham Young stated, “Should you ask why we differ from other Christians, as they are called, it is simply because they are not Christians as the New Testament defines Christianity” (July 8, 1863, Journal of Discourses, 10:230). Third president John Taylor was even more straightforward:

What does the Christian world know about God? Nothing; yet these very men assume the right and power to tell others what they shall not believe in. Why so far as the things of God are concerned, they are the veriest of fools; they know neither God nor the things of God (May 6, 1870, Journal of Discourses 13:225).

Joseph F. Smith agreed with this assessment, saying that

I contend that the Latter-day Saints are the only good and true Christians, that I know anything about in the world. There are a good many people who profess to be Christians, but they are not founded on the foundation that Jesus Christ himself has laid” (November 2, 1891, [Stake conference message], Collected Discourses, 2:305. Ellipses mine).

Even as late as 1966, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie didn’t mince his words:

That portion of the world in which so-called Christianity prevails — as distinguished from heathen or Mohammedan lands — is called Christendom. The term also applies to the whole body of supposed Christian believers; as now constituted this body is properly termed apostate Christendom (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 131).

Of course, this 21st century Gospel Topics essay is nowhere close to being as blunt as these older leaders, but the idea is still the same. As long as Joseph Smith-History 1 and the First Vision account remain in the LDS canon, the idea that modern-day Christianity is corrupted and lacking priesthood authority remains. And some Mormons wonder why Bible-believing Christians feel slighted when an ecumenical atmosphere is encouraged! Although most Mormons despise being labeled a “cult” or non Christian religion, the very existence of the LDS Church rests firmly on the foundational teaching that this is the only organization with authority to lead people to the Celestial kingdom.

Even so, many Latter-day Saints initially understood the concept of priesthood largely in terms common for the day. In 1830s America, the word priesthood was defined as “the office or character of a priest” and “the order of men set apart for sacred offices,” identifying priesthood with religious office and the men who held it. Early Latter-day Saints likewise thought of priesthood primarily in terms of ordination to ecclesiastical office and authority to preach and perform religious rites. As in most other Christian denominations during this era, Latter-day Saint men alone held priesthood offices, served formal proselytizing missions, and performed ordinances like baptism and blessing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Unlike those in many other churches, Latter-day Saints extended priesthood ordination broadly to laymen, as directed by revelation. Over time, an extensive structure of priesthood offices and quorums was established. From the beginning, this structure was governed by revelation under the direction of priesthood leaders holding “keys.” The keys of the Melchizedek priesthood, given through divine messengers to Joseph Smith and later passed to others, bestowed the “right of presidency,” the right “to administer in spiritual things,” and the “right to officiate in all the offices in the church.”

Latter-day Saints’ understanding of the nature of priesthood and keys grew as a result of revelations received by Joseph Smith. An 1832 revelation taught that the greater, or Melchizedek, priesthood held “the key of the knowledge of God,” and that in the ordinances of the priesthood, “the power of godliness is manifest.” Joseph Smith was charged, like Moses, “to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God.”7 In 1836, angelic messengers committed priesthood keys to Joseph Smith that would enable church members to receive temple ordinances. In an 1841 revelation, the Lord commanded the Saints to build a temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, where He would reveal to His people “all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof.” The culminating ordinances of the priesthood were to be found in the temple and would help prepare men and women to enter into God’s presence.

Latter-day Saint women in the Church’s earliest years, like women elsewhere, participated actively in their new religious community. They ratified decisions by voting in conferences;  they furnished the temple with their handiwork; they worshipped alongside men in meetings and choirs; they shared the gospel with relatives and neighbors; they hosted meetings in their homes; and they exercised spiritual gifts in private and in public. Early revelation authorized women to “expound scriptures, and to exhort the church.” Even so, like most other Christians in their day, Latter-day Saints in the early years of the Church reserved public preaching and leadership for men.

While it is true that many Christian churches only “ordain” men to the pastorate or priesthood, this doesn’t mean that women in these churches don’t have the same authority when it comes to salvation (as discussed above). According to Christianity, all are equal in God’s sight when it comes to authority.

Joseph Smith and the Nauvoo Relief Society

Revelatory developments in Nauvoo afforded women new opportunities to participate in the Church and expanded Latter-day Saints’ understanding of the eternal relationship between men and women. The organization of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo on March 17, 1842, marked a significant step in these developments. Wanting to provide charitable support to men working to build the temple, a group of Mormon women planned to form a benevolent society, mirroring a popular practice of the time. When they presented their plan to Joseph Smith, he felt inspired to move beyond such precedents. As Sarah Granger Kimball, a founding member of the Relief Society, later recalled, the Prophet told them he had “something better” for them and said he would organize the women “in the Order of the Priesthood after the pattern of the Church.”

The women named their new organization “Relief Society.” It was unlike other women’s societies of the day because it was established by a prophet who acted with priesthood authority to give women authority, sacred responsibilities, and official positions within the structure of the Church, not apart from it. The women were organized, as Apostle John Taylor remarked at the founding meeting, “according to the law of Heaven.”

The “prophet who acted with priesthood authority to give women authority” was none other than Joseph Smith, a man who was secretly marrying the women in the Relief Society behind his wife’s back. Indeed, scandal broke right after the establishment of the society. Referring to older women who helped him find younger wives behind Emma’s back, Mormon authors Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery explain,

Unbeknown to Emma, Joseph had already taught these older women the principles of plural marriage. Sometimes referred to as “Mothers in Israel,” they assisted Joseph by contacting women, explaining the new order of marriage to them, and occasionally delivering marriage proposals (Mormon Enigma, p. 109).

Emma became suspicious and heard rumors about her husband mining where he didn’t have the mineral rights…the women of her new group. When she was approached on the topic by a fellow Relief Society member, she said that Joseph

Had told her to tell the sisters of the society that if any man, no matter who he was, undertook to talk such stuff to them in their houses, just to order him out at once, and if he did not go immediately, to take the tons or the broom and drive him out, for the whole idea was absolutely false and the doctrine an evil and unlawful thing (Ibid., p. 144)

In other words, Joseph Smith lied to his wife since it has been fully documented and even accepted by the LDS Church that Joseph Smith had “between 30-40 wives.” For more information, see

Joseph Smith charged the women to “relieve the poor” and to “save souls.” He stated that his wife Emma Hale Smith’s appointment as president of the Relief Society fulfilled a revelation given to her twelve years earlier, in which she was called an “Elect lady.”  He also declared to the 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.”

Sarah Kingsley Cleveland, counselor to Emma Smith, expressed the women’s sense of divine authorization when she said, “We design to act in the name of the Lord.” Emma Smith called upon each member of the Society to be “ambitious to do good,” declaring that together they would do “something extraordinary.” She anticipated “extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”

On May 26, 1842, Joseph Smith addressed the society, with Emma in the crowd.

He read the fourteenth chapter of Ezekiel and emphasized that the people should stand firm on their own faith. Then he said, “There is another error which opens a door for the adversary to enter. As females possess refined feelings and sensitiveness, they are also subject to an overmuch zeal which must ever prove dangerous, and cause them to be rigid in a religious capacity. [You] should be arm’d with mercy notwithstanding the iniquity among us. . . . Put a double watch over the tongue. . . . [You] should chasten and reprove and keep it all in silence, not even mention them again.” He addressed Emma directly. “One request to the Prest. and society, that you search yourselves—the tongue is an unruly member—hold your tongues about things of no moment. A little tale will set the world on fire. At this time the truth on the guilty should not be told openly—Strange as this may seem, yet this is policy. We must use precaution in bringing sinners to justice lest in exposing these heinous sins, we draw the indignation of a gentile world upon us (and to their imagination justly, too). It is necessary to hold an influence in the world and thus spare ourselves in extermination.” Joseph contradicted his previous charge that the women watch over the morals of the community. Emma was doing her job too well (Ibid., p. 115)

Two aspects of Joseph Smith’s teachings to the women of the Relief Society may be unfamiliar to members of the Church today. First is his use of language associated with priesthood. In organizing the Relief Society, Joseph spoke of “ordain[ing]” women and said that Relief Society officers would “preside over the Society.” He also declared, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God.” These statements indicate that Joseph Smith delegated priesthood authority to women in the Relief Society. 

Just as what occurred earlier in the essay, this is nothing more than a deflection. What does the “key” mean? Certainly not the “key” of the priesthood authority. Otherwise women would be able to hold either the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthoods. But women cannot hold the priesthood in Mormonism. We all know that. Or else Mormon females would be able to baptize and ordain. They cannot, so therefore they do not have the same priesthood authority as held by the faithful men in their church.

Joseph’s language can be more fully understood in historical context. During the 19th century, Latter-day Saints used the term keys to refer at various times to authority, knowledge, or temple ordinances. Likewise, Mormons sometimes used the term ordain in a broad sense, often interchangeably with set apart and not always referring to priesthood office. On these points, Joseph’s actions illuminate the meaning of his words: neither Joseph Smith, nor any person acting on his behalf, nor any of his successors conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on women or ordained women to priesthood office.

In later years, words like ordination and keys were more precisely defined, as when President John Taylor, who acted by assignment from Joseph Smith to “ordain and set apart” Emma Smith and her counselors, explained in 1880 that “the ordination then given did not mean the conferring of the Priesthood upon those sisters.” Women did receive authority to preside in the women’s organization and to appoint officers as needed to conduct the organization in the pattern of the priesthood, including being led by a president with counselors. By the time of President Taylor’s statement, women-led organizations were also in place for young women and children. These organizations also had presidencies, who acted with delegated priesthood authority.

The second aspect of Joseph Smith’s teachings to the Relief Society that may be unfamiliar today is his endorsement of women’s participation in giving blessings of healing. “Respecting the female laying on hands,” the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes record, Joseph said that “it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith,” and admonished, “if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.” Some women had performed such blessings since the early days of the Church. At that time, Latter-day Saints understood the gift of healing primarily in terms of the New Testament’s teaching that it was one of the gifts of the Spirit available to believers through faith. Joseph Smith taught that the gift of healing was a sign that would follow “all that believe whether male or female.”

Another deflection.  The issue concerns whether or not women have authority on their own (priesthood) to directly commune with God. Just being able to use the spiritual gifts is not the same as being granted this type of authority that the Bible indicates women–as human beings–have.

During the 19th century, women frequently blessed the sick by the prayer of faith, and many women received priesthood blessings promising that they would have the gift of healing. “I have seen many demonstrations of the power and blessing of God through the administration of the sisters,” testified Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney, who was, by her own account, blessed by Joseph Smith to exercise this gift. In reference to these healing blessings, Relief Society general president Eliza R. Snow explained in 1883, “Women can administer in the name of JESUS, but not by virtue of the Priesthood.”

And there you go. They can “administer in the name of JESUS, but not by virtue of the Priesthood.” No verse in the Bible can be used to show that women don’t have the same authority as men when it comes to their relationship with God.

Women’s participation in healing blessings gradually declined in the early 20th century as Church leaders taught that it was preferable to follow the New Testament directive to “call for the elders.” By 1926, Church President Heber J. Grant affirmed that the First Presidency “do not encourage calling in the sisters to administer to the sick, as the scriptures tell us to call in the Elders, who hold the priesthood of God and have the power and authority to administer to the sick in the name of Jesus Christ.” The current Handbook of Instructions directs that “only Melchizedek Priesthood holders may administer to the sick or afflicted.”

So let me ask, if this “gift” is no longer encouraged to be given to the women of the church today, then why even bring this up in the essay. If the priesthood is not valid for women in today’s church, it seems to be a moot point.

Priesthood and the Temple

Joseph Smith said that his instructions to the Relief Society were intended tjo prepare women to “come in possession of the privileges & blessings & gifts of the priesthood.” This would be accomplished through the ordinances of the temple. These new ordinances taught the nature of God, the purpose of life, the meaning of eternal life, and the nature of humankind’s relationship to divinity. They brought men and women into a covenant relationship with God.

Joseph Smith’s teachings about temple ordinances provide further context for his priesthood-related teachings to the Relief Society. Joseph spoke of establishing a “kingdom of priests.” He had used similar terms earlier when speaking of the relationship of all the Saints to the temple. This “kingdom of priests” would be comprised of men and women who made temple covenants.

In the last two years of his life, Joseph Smith introduced temple ordinances and covenants to a core group of men and women. In May 1842, he officiated in the first temple endowments—a ritual in which participants made sacred covenants and received instruction regarding God’s plan of salvation. Joseph Smith began sealing (or marrying for eternity) husbands and wives and then initiated women into the endowment by the end of September 1843. He taught men and women that by receiving temple ordinances, culminating in the sealing ordinance, they entered into an “order of the priesthood.” By the time of his death, he had given these ordinances to several dozen men and women, who met together often to pray and to participate in temple ceremonies as they awaited completion of the Nauvoo Temple in December 1845.

Temple ordinances were priesthood ordinances, but they did not bestow ecclesiastical office on men or women. They fulfilled the Lord’s promise that his people—women and men—would be “endowed with power from on high.” That priesthood power was manifest in individuals’ lives in many ways and was available to adult members, regardless of marital status. The endowment opened channels of personal revelation to both women and men. It bestowed a greater measure of “faith and knowledge” and the “help of the Spirit of the Lord”—power that fortified the Saints for subsequent hardships they would face as they traveled 1,300 miles across a forbidding wilderness and settled in the Salt Lake Valley.  It prepared endowed Latter-day Saints to go forth “armed with thy [God’s] power” to “bear exceedingly great and glorious tidings … unto the ends of the earth.” Indeed, through the ordinances of the temple, the power of godliness was manifest in their lives.

During the Nauvoo era, Latter-day Saints came to understand that all people are children of heavenly parents and that it is the ultimate destiny of faithful men and women to become like them. Additional revelation about the eternal nature and purpose of marriage accompanied these teachings. Joseph Smith taught associates that marriage performed and solemnized—or “sealed”—by proper authority in temples would last into the eternities.

These revelations and ordinances imparted new understanding of the interdependent relationship of women and men. As Bishop Newel K. Whitney expressed it shortly after receiving his endowment, “Without the female all things cannot be restor’d to the earth. It takes all to restore the Priesthood.” Mary Isabella Horne, a member of the Nauvoo Relief Society, later expressed joy in being “co-laborers with our brethren in building up the kingdom of God.” “In all the ordinances received in the House of the Lord,” she said, “woman stands beside the man, both for the living and the dead, showing that the man is not without the woman nor the woman without the man in the Lord.”

The priesthood power bestowed in the Nauvoo Temple—and by extension, in temples today—extends beyond this life, for temple ordinances make possible the exaltation of God’s children.  The ordinances of the temple, Joseph Smith taught, would create a “welding link” between all members of the human family, one family at a time, extending backward and forward in time.

When a man and a woman are sealed in the temple, they enter together, by covenant, into an order of the priesthood. If they are faithful to their covenants, they receive “honor, immortality, and eternal life,” “exaltation and glory in all things,” and “a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.”

Of  course, marriage in Mormonism is much different than what is practiced by Christians. Getting married in the temple is vital for the couple wanting to attain exaltation or Godhood. “Celestial marriages” of LDS couples for “time and eternity” take place in the temples. This is an important teaching, since “only in the temple can we be sealed together forever as families”(Gospel Principles, p. 235). At the October 2008 general conference, Apostle Russell M. Nelson said,

To qualify for eternal life, we must make an eternal and everlasting covenant with our Heavenly Father. This means that a temple marriage is not only between husband and wife; it embraces a partnership with God (Ensign, November 2008, p.93).

Marriages performed outside of the temple are considered binding only “until death.” Gospel Principles states,

Only in the temple can we be sealed together forever as families. Marriage in the temple joins a man and woman as husband and wife eternally if they honor their covenants. Baptism and all other ordinances prepare us for this sacred event. When a man and woman are married in the temple, their children who are born thereafter also become part of their eternal family (p. 235).

Children born to a couple married in the temple are automatically “sealed” (known as born in the covenant) to their parents for eternity. Those couples not married in the temple will not only lose the right to be together after death, but they have no “claim upon their children, for they have not been born under the covenant of eternal marriage” (A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, p. 193).

Those not married in the temple must have their families sealed in a separate temple ceremony. President Howard W. Hunter wrote:

If children are born before the wife is sealed to her husband, there is a temple sealing ordinance that can seal these children to their parents for eternity, and so it is that children can be sealed vicariously to parents who have passed away” (Ensign, February 1995, p. 2).

Although continued good works are essential, Mormonism teaches that a person must be married in the temple to have a chance at exaltation. Nelson said,

On occasion, I read in a newspaper obituary of an expectation that a recent death has reunited that person with a deceased spouse, when, in fact, they did not choose the eternal option. Instead, they opted for a marriage that was valid only as long as they both should live. Heavenly Father has offered them a supernatural gift, but they refused it. And in rejecting the gift, they rejected the Giver of the gift (Ensign, November 2008, p. 93).

Apostle Dallin H. Oaks agreed, saying, “Under the great plan of the living Creator, the mission of His Church is to help us achieve exaltation in the celestial kingdom, and that can be accomplished only through an eternal marriage between a man and a woman” (Ensign, January 2011, pp. 25-26). It is believed that there is a danger in “delaying marriage” since “all normal people should plan their lives to include a proper temple marriage in their early life and to multiply and have their families in the years of their early maturity” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, p. 195).

Some do not have the opportunity to marry in this life, and many experience broken family relationships. Because God is just, every child of God will have the opportunity, either in this life or in the next, to accept the gospel and receive all promised blessings (including eternal marriage), conditioned upon faithfulness.

At face value, it makes it sound like everyone (“every child of God”) will have a second chance to receive the gospel in the next life. However, this doctrine was originally intended for anyone who didn’t have a reasonable opportunity to either get married or hear the gospel. As far as getting married, how many single Latter-day Saints who were tragically killed in their late 20s or 30s really didn’t have an “opportunity”? Excuses could be made for anyone. Or what about those who did have a presentation of the LDS gospel but either procrastinated or deflected the opportunity? Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith didn’t mince any words when he wrote,

SOME NOT ELIGIBLE FOR VICARIOUS SALVATION. There are too many people in this world, who have heard the message of the gospel, who think they can continue on to the end of this mortal life, living as they please, and then accept the gospel after death and friends will perform the ordinances that they neglect to perform for themselves, and eventually they will receive blessings in the kingdom of God. This is an error. It is the duty of men in this life to repent. Every man who hears the gospel message is under obligation to receive it. If he fails, then in the spirit world he will be called upon to receive it, but he will be denied the fulness that will come to those who in their faithfulness have been just and true, whether it be in this life or in the spirit world (Doctrines of Salvation 2:183).

Twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball agreed, adding in his classic book:

It must be remembered that vicarious work for the dead is for those who could not do the work for themselves. Men and women who live in mortality and who have heard the gospel here have had their day, their seventy years to put their lives in harmony, to perform the ordinances, to repent and to perfect their lives (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 314).

Nobody could tell a story like Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie:

There are those who believe that the doctrine of salvation for the dead offers men a second chance for salvation. This is false, false, false. I know a man, now deceased, a non-member of the Church, who was a degenerate old reprobate who found pleasure, as he supposed, in living after the manner of the world. A cigarette dangled from his lips, alcohol stenched his breath, and profane and bawdy stories defiled his lips. His moral status left much to be desired. His wife was a member of the Church, as faithful as she could be under the circumstances. One day she said to him, “You know the Church is true; why don’t you be baptized?” He replied, “Of course I know the Church is true, but I have no intention of changing my habits in order to join it. I prefer to live the way I do. But that doesn’t worry me in the slightest. I know that as soon as I die, you will have someone go to the temple and do the work for me and everything will come out all right in the end anyway.” He died and she did and it was a total and complete waste of time” ( “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” an address given at Brigham Young University on June 1, 1980. Transcribed from actual speech).

BYU professor Charles Harrell wonders what all of the fuss is about. He writes,

There is no indication in the Book of Mormon that Christ introduced the doctrine of salvation for the dead during his visit to the Nephites—even though, according to LDS doctrine, he had just visited the spirits in prison and opened the door for their salvation. On the contrary, the Book of Mormon people were taught not to worry about those who die without having heard the gospel in this life since they are redeemed automatically through the Atonement. The whole notion of vicarious work for the dead seems incongruous with Book of Mormon theology ( ‘This is my Doctrine’: The Development of Mormon Theology, p. 361).

Women and Priesthood Today

In some respects, the relationship between Latter-day Saint women and priesthood has remained remarkably constant since Joseph Smith’s day. As in the earliest days of the Church, men are ordained to priesthood offices, while both women and men are invited to experience the power and blessings of the priesthood in their lives.Men and women continue to officiate in sacred ordinances in temples much as they did in Joseph Smith’s day. Joseph taught that men and women can obtain the highest degree of celestial glory only by entering together into an order of the priesthood through the temple sealing ordinance. That understanding remains with Latter-day Saints today.

The priesthood authority exercised by Latter-day Saint women in the temple and elsewhere remains largely unrecognized by people outside the Church and is sometimes misunderstood or overlooked by those within. Latter-day Saints and others often mistakenly equate priesthood with religious office and the men who hold it, which obscures the broader Latter-day Saint concept of priesthood.

Since Joseph Smith’s day, Church prophets, exercising the keys of the priesthood, have adapted structures and programs in a world in which educational, political, and economic opportunities have expanded for many women. Today, Latter-day Saint women lead three organizations within the Church: the Relief Society, the Young Women, and the Primary. They preach and pray in congregations, fill numerous positions of leadership and service, participate in priesthood councils at the local and general levels, and serve formal proselytizing missions across the globe. In these and other ways, women exercise priesthood authority even though they are not ordained to priesthood office.Such service and leadership would require ordination in many other religious traditions.

With all that has been written in this essay, the bottom line is that women do not have the priesthood. They must rely on a husband to call them up from the grave. They cannot baptize or ordain with authority. Just one more deflection.

Priesthood blesses the lives of God’s children in innumerable ways. Priesthood defines, empowers, ennobles, and creates order. In ecclesiastical callings, temple ordinances, family relationships, and quiet, individual ministry, Latter-day Saint women and men go forward with priesthood power and authority. This interdependence of men and women in accomplishing God’s work through His power is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Something tells me this essay will not appease those Latter-day Saints who believe women are held to a second-class status within Mormonism. It certainly won’t make the women’s group Ordain Women go away. It will satisfy only those who are the already faithful.

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