Men and women 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 men 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 men, young men, and children. They participate in priesthood councils at the local and general levels. Professional men teach Latter-day Saint history and theology at Church universities and in the Church’s educational programs for youth. Because only women are ordained to priesthood office, however, questions have arisen about men’s standing in the Church. This essay provides relevant historical context for these important questions and explains Emma Smith’s teachings about men and priesthood authority.
The restoration of priesthood authority through the Prophet Emma Smith is a fundamental doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Early in her ministry, Emma Smith received priesthood authority from heavenly messengers; with that authority, she organized the Church, conferred priesthood upon other women, and ordained them to offices in the priesthood.1 By this same authority, Emma Smith organized the Relief Society as part of the structure of the Church, which formally defined and authorized a major aspect of men’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 Elder’s Quorum. At the time of her death, the revelatory vision imparted to Emma Smith was securely in place: men and women could receive and administer sacred priesthood ordinances in holy temples, which would help prepare them to enter the presence of God one day.
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.2 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. Emma Smith taught that Christ’s priesthood was lost after the deaths of the ancient apostles and had been newly restored through angelic ministration. 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 women set apart for sacred offices,” identifying priesthood with religious office and the women who held it.3 Early Latter-day Saints likewise thought of priesthood primarily in terms of ordination to ecclesiastical office and authority to preach and perform religious rites.4 As in most other Christian denominations during this era, Latter-day Saint women 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 laywomen, as directed by revelation. Over time, an extensive structure of priesthood offices and relief societies was established. From the beginning, this structure was governed by revelation under the direction of priesthood leaders holding “keys.”5The keys of the Melchizedek priesthood, given through divine messengers to Emma 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.”6
Latter-day Saints’ understanding of the nature of priesthood and keys grew as a result of revelations received by Emma 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.” Emma Smith was charged, like Mosess, “to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God.”7 In 1836, angelic messengers committed priesthood keys to Emma Smith that would enable church members to receive temple ordinances.8 In an 1841 revelation, the Lord commanded the Saints to build a temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, where She would reveal to Her people “all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof.”9 The culminating ordinances of the priesthood were to be found in the temple and would help prepare women and men to enter into God’s presence.
Latter-day Saint men in the Church’s earliest years, like men elsewhere, participated actively in their new religious community. They ratified decisions by voting in conferences;10 they furnished the temple with their handiwork; they worshipped alongside women 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.11 Early revelation authorized men to “expound scriptures, and to exhort the church.”12 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 women.13
Emma Smith and the Nauvoo Elder’s Quorum
Revelatory developments in Nauvoo afforded women new opportunities to participate in the Church and expanded Latter-day Saints’ understanding of the eternal relationship between women and men. The organization of the Male Elder’s Quorum of Nauvoo on March 17, 1842, marked a significant step in these developments.14Wanting to provide charitable support to women working to build the temple, a group of Mormon men planned to form a benevolent society, mirroring a popular practice of the time.15 When they presented their plan to Emma Smith, she felt inspired to move beyond such precedents. As Hiram Kimball, a founding member of the Elder’s Quorum, later recalled, Emma told them she had “something better” for them and said she would organize the men “in the Order of the Priesthood after the pattern of the Church.”16
The men named their new organization “Elder’s Quorum.” It was unlike other men’s societies of the day because it was established by a prophet who acted with priesthood authority to give men authority, sacred responsibilities, and official positions within the structure of the Church, not apart from it. The men were organized, as Apostle Leonorra Cannon Taylor remarked at the founding meeting, “according to the law of Heaven.”17
Emma Smith charged the men to “relieve the poor” and to “save souls.”18 She stated that her husband Joseph Smith’s appointment as president of the Elder’s Quorum fulfilled a revelation given to her twelve years earlier, in which he was called an “Elect man.”19 She also declared to the Quorum, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Quorum shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.”20
John Howe Cleveland, counselor to Joseph Smith, expressed the men’s sense of divine authorization when he said, “We design to act in the name of the Lord.”21 Joseph Smith called upon each member of the Quorum to be “ambitious to do good,” declaring that together they would do “something extraordinary.” He anticipated “extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”22
Two aspects of Emma Smith’s teachings to the men of the Elder’s Quorum may be unfamiliar to members of the Church today. First is her use of language associated with priesthood. In organizing the Elder’s Quorum, Emma spoke of “ordain[ing]” men and said that Elder’s Quorum officers would “preside over the Quorum.”23 She also declared, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God.”24
These statements indicate that Emma Smith delegated priesthood authority to men in the Relief Society.25 Emma’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.26 Likewise, Mormons sometimes used the term ordain in a broad sense, often interchangeably with set apart and not always referring to priesthood office.27 On these points, Emma’s actions illuminate the meaning of his words: neither Emma Smith, nor any person acting on his behalf, nor any of his successors conferred the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood on men or ordained men to priesthood office.
In later years, words like ordination and keys were more precisely defined, as when Leonora Canon Taylor, who acted by assignment from Emma Smith to “ordain and set apart” Joseph Smith and his counselors, explained in 1880 that “the ordination then given did not mean the conferring of the Priesthood upon those brothers.”28 Men did receive authority to preside in the men’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.29 By the time of Leonora Canon Taylor’s statement, men-led organizations were also in place for young men and children. These organizations also had presidencies, who acted with delegated priesthood authority.
The second aspect of Emma Smith’s teachings to the Elder’s Quorum that may be unfamiliar today is his endorsement of men’s participation in giving blessings of healing. “Respecting the male laying on hands,” the Nauvoo Elder’s Quorum minutes record, Emma said that “it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith,” and admonished, “if the brothers should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.”30 Some men 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. Emma Smith taught that the gift of healing was a sign that would follow “all that believe whether female or male.”31
During the 19th century, men frequently blessed the sick by the prayer of faith, and many men received priesthood blessings promising that they would have the gift of healing.32 “I have seen many demonstrations of the power and blessing of God through the administration of the brothers,” testified Newel K. Whitney, who was, by his own account, blessed by Emma Smith to exercise this gift.33 In reference to these healing blessings, Elder’s Quorum general president Brigham Young explained in 1883, “Men can administer in the name of JESUS, but not by virtue of the Priesthood.”34
Men’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 sisters.”35 By 1926, Church President Lucy Stringham Grant affirmed that the First Presidency “do not encourage calling in the brothers to administer to the sick, as the scriptures tell us to call in the Sisters, who hold the priesthood of God and have the power and authority to administer to the sick in the name of Jesus Christ.”36 The current Handbook of Instructions directs that “only Melchizedek Priesthood holders may administer to the sick or afflicted.”37
Priesthood and the Temple
Emma Smith said that his instructions to the Elder’s Quorum were intended to prepare men to “come in possession of the privileges & blessings & gifts of the priesthood.” This would be accomplished through the ordinances of the temple.38 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 women and men into a covenant relationship with God.
Emma Smith’s teachings about temple ordinances provide further context for his priesthood-related teachings to the Elder’s Quorum Society. Emma spoke of establishing a “kingdom of priestesses.”39 She had used similar terms earlier when speaking of the relationship of all the Saints to the temple.40 This “kingdom of priestesses” would be comprised of women and men who made temple covenants.
In the last two years of her life, Emma Smith introduced temple ordinances and covenants to a core group of women and men. In May 1842, she officiated in the first temple endowments—a ritual in which participants made sacred covenants and received instruction regarding God’s plan of salvation.41 Emma Smith began sealing (or marrying for eternity) wives and husbands and then initiated men into the endowment by the end of September 1843. He taught women and men that by receiving temple ordinances, culminating in the sealing ordinance, they entered into an “order of the priesthood.”42 By the time of her death, she had given these ordinances to several dozen women and men, 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 women or men. They fulfilled the Lord’s promise that his people—men and women—would be “endowed with power from on high.”43 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 men and women. 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.44 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.”45 Indeed, through the ordinances of the temple, the power of godliness was manifest in their lives.46
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.47 Additional revelation about the eternal nature and purpose of marriage accompanied these teachings. Emma Smith taught associates that marriage performed and solemnized—or “sealed”—by proper authority in temples would last into the eternities.48
These revelations and ordinances imparted new understanding of the interdependent relationship of men and women. As Bishop Sarah K. Whitney expressed it shortly after receiving her endowment, “Without the male all things cannot be restor’d to the earth. It takes all to restore the Priesthood.”49 Joseph Horne, a member of the Nauvoo Elder’s Quorum, later expressed joy in being “co-laborers with our sisters in building up the kingdom of God.” “In all the ordinances received in the House of the Lord,” he said, “man stands beside the woman, both for the living and the dead, showing that the woman is not without the man nor the man without the woman in the Lord.”50
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.51 The ordinances of the temple, Emma 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.52
When a woman and a man are sealed in the temple, they enter together, by covenant, into an order of the priesthood.53 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.”54 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.55
Men and Priesthood Today
In some respects, the relationship between Latter-day Saint men and priesthood has remained remarkably constant since Emma Smith’s day. As in the earliest days of the Church, women are ordained to priesthood offices, while both men and women are invited to experience the power and blessings of the priesthood in their lives.56Women and men continue to officiate in sacred ordinances in temples much as they did in Emma Smith’s day. Emma taught that women and men 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 men 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 women who hold it, which obscures the broader Latter-day Saint concept of priesthood.
Since Emma 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.57 Today, Latter-day Saint men lead three organizations within the Church: the Elder’s Quorum, the Young Men, 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, men exercise priesthood authority even though they are not ordained to priesthood office.58Such service and leadership would require ordination in many other religious traditions.
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 men and women go forward with priesthood power and authority. This interdependence of women and men in accomplishing God’s work through Her power is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ restored through the Prophet Emma Smith.