While women's issues have risen to prominence in the Church recently, I haven't heard anyone frame the conversation around Joseph Smith's vision for the Relief Society and the role of women priests in the institutional Church he restored (which I find surprising since the founding prophet of the faith seems like a pretty good place to start).
I approach this subject with humility, being aware of my limitations: I am not a woman (although I am the son of one, the husband of one, the brother of three, and the father of two). I also do not have final answers. But it seems that in cases such as this, where our knowledge is lacking, it would be wise to approach God and ask.
If any of you lack wisdom, [that's me] let him ask of God, [that's not me] that giveth to all men liberally, [and women, naturally] and upbraideth not; [no harm in asking] and it shall be given him [that's what we desperately need].
So after reading this post, consider praying and asking God if there's something we can do to move the needle on this matter.
I want this post to be conversational; I am here to listen as much as to share; there's much to hear in the still small voice and in the voices of those of you who are reading this.
This is a chance for us to "teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom; teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you" (D&C 88:77-78). Among the topics facing the Church today that require grace and additional revelation, I would place women's issues and gay issues near the top.
I have pondered and prayed about what to teach my daughters about the Priesthood.
I recall a time in college when I was home teaching three sisters in the neighboring dorm. When my companion and I shared a lesson on the priesthood, they didn't know what high priests were.
I naively asked the sisters, "Don't they teach you about the priesthood in Relief Society?"
"No," the sisters said unanimously. "The only things we're taught about the priesthood at Church are (1) to sustain our future husband in his priesthood duties; and (2) ask for priesthood blessings."
While I am not as ambitious or eloquent as Nate, I think I share a similar hope that we can work together as brothers and sisters in seeking greater light and truth on these complicated subjects from our Father in Heaven.
To paraphrase Nate:
"My goal is to show that given the history and current practice of [male leadership] within the Church, the recognition of [equality for women] would be a less theologically radical move than many (including myself) have assumed."
Exploring the Implications of Joseph Smith's Relief Society
I think a productive way to approach this issue is to take a Restorationist framework or viewpoint, which is predicated upon continuing revelation, and the heavens being open, so as to guide us toward a holier pattern, even Zion.
A Restorationist perspective is not concerned about maintaining the status quo as it seeks the Celestial law.
I've written before about Joseph Smith's attempts in Nauvoo to restore a fuller understanding of divine female authority.
After 14 years of cutting his teeth trying to organize the men, Joseph had made enough fumbles and corrections that he appeared ready to tackle his next endeavor: organizing the sisters.
There Joseph was, at the end of his life, pivoting towards the women of the Church, when he was abruptly (prematurely?) interrupted due to his death.
Joseph's vision for the Relief Society bears little resemblance to the organization that carries the name today. We all know that Brigham Young disbanded the Relief Society for several decades and when he finally reconstituted it at Eliza Snow's bidding, it was nothing like the organization Joseph had created. For one thing, it was missing its President: Emma.
Then, what little independence the Relief Society had was snuffed out in the 1970s during the Correlation Movement, which placed it under the control of male leadership.
So what now? Where do we go from here? How do we pick up the torch and piece together the parts of the puzzle Joseph left behind, much as Nehemiah did when he rebuilt from the rubble the wall of Jerusalem?
How do we rediscover what the Restoration originally offered to women in order for them to reclaim it?
Back to the Beginning
Let's begin by trying to reconstruct Joseph's vision for the role of women in God's kingdom; it will give us a launching point. One of the problems we face is an incomplete historical and scriptural record. Luckily for us there are several guiding principles we can follow like breadcrumbs towards "a more excellent way." One of those is in Mormonism's foundational text, the Book of Mormon, which advocates for an inclusive and expansive view for those who follow Christ, stating, "none are denied" who come unto Jesus, both male and female, and "all are alike unto God" (2 Ne. 26:33).
Another interesting breadcrumb was given to Emma Smith, who was told in a revelation to "lay aside the things of this world, and seek for the things of a better" (D&C 25:10). At the end of that revelation, the Lord says, "this is my voice unto all" (D&C 25:16).
What are "the things of a better?" It is almost like the Lord is inviting his daughters to rise up and claim a heavenly birthright. It appears the will of God is for us to "lay aside" the things we're doing here on earth and seek a better, higher law.
One example: the Church didn't allow women to speak in a general session of General Conference until . . . wait for it . . . 1984. Whereas, as far back as 1830, the Lord instructed us to have women "exhort the Church" (D&C 25:7). Why did it take 150 years for the Church to follow the Lord's counsel?
From as early as 1829, we see Joseph laying a doctrinal and scriptural framework that was revolutionary (not only for his day but for ours) due to its theological grounding in the equality of the sexes, which culminated years later in his teaching of the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.
A. Eden's Curse Removed in Millennium.
First things first. Let's go all the way back to the beginning. To Eden.
Joseph prophesied that "the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory" (Article of Faith 10) during the Millennium.
What implications are there for women if things returned to the way they were before the Fall?
How much of our understanding about male and female roles is shaped by how things have degenerated after the Fall into a fractured and wicked worldview? Few issues are as opaque as this one, causing us to "see through a glass darkly" thanks to centuries of cultural conditioning.
Now ask yourself: What would the relationship of men and women look like Pre-Fall? What was the pattern of Eden before the curse?
You see, the challenge we have is we've conceived of a heaven that is constituted as a reflection of what we see now here on earth Post-Fall.
Well, forget about how things are now in this wicked world; what we want to know is what they will be like in the eternities.
Because we don't really think heaven is going to resemble a fallen world, do we?
Eve Gets Blamed?
Christianity has developed a lot of baggage around the role of women due to a fundamental mistrust of Eve's role in the Fall.
Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Augustine held Eve responsible for ruining paradise, whereas Latter-day Saints celebrate her for leaving it (that's a big difference!).
This is good in my opinion, because it means members of the LDS Church, who are already comfortable departing from mainstream Christianity's views about Eve, are perfectly-suited and predisposed to embrace what Joseph Smith was trying to do when he gave women divine authority in the institutional Church.
In our unfolding Restoration, what could be more reasonable than restoring women to their proper place as queens and priestesses? Well, so far we haven't been willing to go all the way. We've only been comfortable giving women these titles and roles for the hereafter, but not for the here-and-now.
Much of the confusion, I think, stems from this verse in Genesis:
Unto the woman God said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
So . . . does that mean, before the Fall, Adam did NOT rule over Eve?
So . . . does that mean, in heaven and during the Millennium, men will NOT rule over women?
Remember God never cursed Adam and Eve (which is a common misconception). God only cursed the snake and the land.
God never cursed his daughters! Let that reality sink in deeply. What might we learn from it?
B. Eve's Role in the Holy Priesthood After the Order of the Son of God
I want to suggest that Adam and Eve probably had a very different idea about what the Lord meant by "rule" than we do.
After all, we bring centuries of male-centric cultural bias to religion; whereas Adam and Eve were working from a blank slate. Now in the 21st century we all know what Satan meant when he threatened to rule and reign with blood and horror; but at the time in the garden, Adam and Eve hadn't encountered King Louis XIV or Napoleon yet.
During his translation of the Bible, Joseph Smith gave new insight into the role of women in the Pearl of Great Price, where we read:
And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters.
Okay, we know the higher priesthood (Melchizedek) holds the "blessings" of God unto His Church (D&C 107:18); so what does it mean when it says Eve "blessed" the name of God? What was she actually doing?
Here it says Adam and Eve made "all" things known to their sons AND daughters. What exactly were they "making known?"
What if the religion of Adam and Eve treated the sexes equally and was not repressive towards women? What if, instead, some others came along later in Cain's tradition or under Satan's system ― who were "carnal, sensual and devilish" (Moses 5:13) ― and it was their false priesthoods (the priesthood of Pharaoh) that made women inferior in status to men?
In other words, since inequality is the hallmark of the devil, would it surprise anyone if the devil (not God) was responsible for injecting patriarchy-as-we-know-it into the structure of the priesthood?
And Adam and Eve, his wife, ceased not to call upon God.
What does it mean for Eve to "call" upon God? Was this something more than just prayer? Was this something to do with the original holy order of the priesthood that transcended the thing we understand today as the "patriarchal priesthood?"
Finally, was this what Joseph was aiming for? Was this the thing the Lord was pointing to when He said:
Now this same Priesthood, which was in the beginning, shall be in the end of the world also.
C. Zion stands for the equality of men and women as kings and queens.
In aiming for Zion, Joseph rejected out of hand the sectarian notions of original sin. Instead, he taught a gospel of (1) individual accountability (Article of Faith 2) and (2) equality. Read the following verse that is familiar, but this time pretend it were about gender equality:
That you may be equal in the bonds of heavenly things, yea, and earthly things also, for the obtaining of heavenly things.
What would it mean for women and men to share "equally in the bonds of heavenly things on earth?"
The primary justifications for denying divine institutional authority to women (that I am aware of) are based on historical and cultural precedents. But then Joseph Smith showed up on the scene and he tossed into the trash all the historical "precedents" from a Fallen creation.
Joseph ignored thousands of years of apostasy and manmade tradition and pointed us towards a more perfect union, even Zion, in which men and women are co-equals in Christ.
For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
(1 Cor. 11:12)
Zion, after all, bears the image of God who is a Bridegroom (and you can't have a groom without a bride).
D. Gifts of Revelation and Prophecy Are Equally Available to Men and Women through the Holy Ghost From a theological (and practical) standpoint, perhaps the best evidence women can be prophets and revelators is they share equally in the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Two important gifts are (1) prophecy and (2) revelation.
Today we treat prophets and apostles as priesthood offices that can exist with-or-without the gifts of prophecy or revelation.
Recently Patrick Mason (who was interviewed on Mormon Stories) said that prophets do NOT have to be moral exemplars. He was right, of course, but wouldn't it be nice if they were?
The Holy Ghost is a member of the Godhead and given to all members of the Church. Christ is the head of His Church. Don't these two facts render meaningless the gender of whoever sits in the prophet's seat, when it is God in charge?
In the Pearl of Great Price, Enoch taught the Holy Ghost was the power of God:
Therefore it is given to abide in you; the record of heaven; the Comforter; the peaceable things of immortal glory; the truth of all things; that which quickeneth all things, which maketh alive all things; that which knoweth all things, and hath all power according to wisdom, mercy, truth, justice, and judgment.
I am very interested in your thoughts. As I've written before in Bride of Babylon, I do not believe the answer is ordaining women into the hierarchy we currently have, since the hierarchy itself is an obstacle to Zion.
What would a female priesthood look like? Can we envision something new, unique, and different from what we're used to?
As a concluding thought, when Joseph Smith informed the Relief Society a couple months before his death that "he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch's Day" (Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, March 31, 1842), what did he mean?
I remember someone joking that Joseph tried for years unsuccessfully to obtain the gold plates, but it wasn't until he brought Emma along that he finally got them, and that there was a lesson in it.
Well, I would just like to point out that Enoch successfully established Zion and we haven't, so . . .