On Friday, October 23, 2015, the Mormon internet world blew up with the release of two new Gospel Topic Essays. I will be addressing one aspect of the essay entitled, Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women. For a much more thorough and balanced critique, I encourage you to read Rational Faiths’ essay, Response to “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women, by Fara Snedon.
I’d like to focus on the following:
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.” (see James 5;14). 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.”
With this statement, the reader is left to think there was a clean mark of distinction for when female healings ended. As Fara Sneddon points out, “The essay makes it appear that this decline was natural – more of a progression towards the natural order of things (‘call for the elders’). Again, I find this simplification problematic.”
The historical record points to things being a little more complicated. Footnote 32 of the Church’s essay links to an article titled, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism”. On page 84 of the cited article, we read the following1:
The enduring power of such folk administration, despite the legacy of formalization, can be seen in a powerful example of unity that occurred in the life of President Spencer W. Kimball who struggled with a significant number of health problems and received frequent administrations from other Church leaders as an apostle and as Church president. In September 1979, after Kimball’s first brain surgery for a subdural hematoma, his son, Edward, recorded in his diary:
“Dad had just been given some codeine for headache; he had not said much according to the nurse, but he had asked for a blessing. . . . Pres. Benson was taking a treatment at the Deseret Gym and could not come right away, so the security man had called Elders McConkie and Hanks; Mother was glad. Elder Hanks anointed Dad and Elder McConkie sealed the anointing as I joined them. At Elder McConkie’s suggestion Mother also placed her hands on Dad’s head. That was unusual; it seemed right to me, but I would not have felt free to suggest it on my own because of an ingrained sense that the ordinance is a priesthood ordinance (though I recalled Joseph Smith’s talking of mothers blessing their children). After the administration Mother wept almost uncontrollably for some minutes, gradually calming down.”
So we see that history is slightly more complicated and interesting than what we often assume, however this isn’t the point of this blog post. The question I would like to address centers around Fara Sneddon’s statement:
“There are many reasons for the decline (as the essay names it) of women’s participation in blessings and healings, just as there are many reasons for the loss of women’s understanding of their participation in the priesthood.”
So what are the other possibilities? Why did women initially have authority to bless and heal, and then lose it over time? Why would President Heber J. Grant discourage women from giving healing blessings and why did Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph F. Smith not hold this view? To give a plausible answer, (other than what the Church essay provides) we need some background.
In Dr. Amand Muss’ book entitled, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation2, Mauss draws upon his own research as well as that of other sociologists, like Rodney Stark, to explore how the LDS Church became assimilated into the wider American culture while struggling to maintain a sense of distinctiveness. In its preface, Mauss states the general framework under which he constructs his investigation:
[The Mormon movement] finally achieved respectability in North America by abandoning its most offensive practices and deliberately pursuing a policy of assimilation with the surrounding American culture. Such a perspective is, of course, accurate enough in the main, and it certainly accords well with the classical Weber-Troeltsch predictions about the assimilation of new religious movements as they are transformed from “sects” to “churches”.
Let’s dissect that: When a new religious movement comes on the scene, it is in high tension with its native society. Most new religious movements fail because the native society requires the new religion to assimilate. When it does not assimilate, it gets squashed by its native society. Those new religious movements that survive do so because they are able to assimilate. But, the other end of the spectrum is too much assimilation. If the new religion assimilates too much, it will be unrecognizable from main stream society, thus becoming irrelevant. So there is a certain tension that must be maintained- “Assimilate, but not too much- is the call. As the new religious movement moves away from its “sect” beginnings and becomes more respectable, it becomes what sociologist call a “church.”
In a private correspondence between Mauss and Dr. Richard Bushman, Bushman suggests three historical stages in U.S. Mormon migration and settlement during the twentieth century:
- Pioneer stage: Local branches consist of few local converts, plus some western Mormon families.
- Settlement stage: More Mormon families move out of Utah and into the East and West in search of education and work.
- Entrenchment stage: The branches, wards and stakes now “resemble those of Utah in size, demographic traits…”. In this last stage, Mormons are more assimilated than in previous stages.3
Let’s pause here for a moment and look at the early first and second century Christian movement through the lens of Mauss’ and Bushman’s work, and the role women played in the early Christian movement. Using Mauss’ and Bushman’s framing we can say that early Christianity was in high tension with its native society – it was more sect-like, or as Bushman puts it, it was in its pioneer stage. As the movement went forward, Christianity too would also go through its settlement stage and eventually land in entrenchment; it became church-like.
What happens to women during these stages? The New Testament gives us some clues. Assuming the books of the New Testament come from the “sect” or “pioneer stage” of Christianity some things are very illuminating.
In Acts chapter 18 Paul meets a man, Aquila, and Aquila’s wife, Priscilla (vs 2). Later in that chapter, Acts lists Priscilla before her husband (vs 18, vs 26). What does this tell us about the importance of Priscilla? If we look at other texts we might have a clue.
In the Book of Mormon we know Laman, not Lemuel, is the oldest brother of Nephi. How do we know this? For one, the text tells us in the opening of the Book of First Nephi:
An account of Lehi and his wife Sariah, and his four sons, being called, (beginning at the eldest) Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi.
Whenever Laman and Lemuel are listed in the Book of Mormon text, we always see Laman as listed first. Why? Not only because he was the oldest, but perhaps the author sees him as holding primacy because he is the oldest.
When Jesus called his twelve apostles in Mark chapter 3, the author lists Peter first, followed by James and John. We see this repeated in Matthew chapter 10 and Luke chapter 5:8 – Peter being the first of the three to interact with Jesus. Matthew and Luke always list Peter before the other apostles. What can we learn from this? Perhaps Peter was always listed first because the authors of Matthew, Mark, and Luke saw Peter as holding a position of primacy over the other apostles. This view is important in Catholicism, and even has a name: a position called the Primacy of Simon Peter.
Back to Aquila and his wife Pricilla. By using the above framing, could the author of Acts have seen Priscilla as being preeminent to her husband? She is also listed first in Romans 16:3 as one of the leaders of a house church. Did Paul see Priscilla as holding more authority than her husband? We see the list reversed later when Paul talks about leaders of house churches in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinth 16:19).
But wait, there’s more and it’s much messier.
In Romans 16:7 we see Paul sending greetings to Andronicus and Junia. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) says they were
“prominent among the apostles”, while the King James Version (KJV) renders them “of note among the apostles.” The NRSV makes Junia and her husband, Andronicus, sound like they are some of the early apostles5 and not just someone noticed by the apostles. Paul even seems to suggest that Junia and Andronicus were preeminent to Paul when he writes, “they were in Christ before I was.”
The Church Father, Origen (late 2nd to 3rd century – pioneer or settlement stage of Christianity), identifies Junia as Junias.5 The latter is a male name. In the 4th century (entrenchment/church-like stage of Christianity)6 Junia is considered male by Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis. At a time when Christianity was becoming more church-like, why would a Church bishop hold such an opinion?
It doesn’t end with Epiphanius. Later translators render her name as Junias (see the Amplified Bible, New American Standard Version, and New International where Junia is rendered as the male, Junias). So what? And equally important, why?
In Acts 21:9 we have four unmarried (and unfortunately, unnamed) daughters of Phillip who prophesy. These are four important women, acknowledged by Paul, as having the gift of prophecy.
What happened to women’s importance in the early Christian church? What happened to women’s authority and power to bless and heal in early Mormonism? Why the changing of the female Junia to the male Junias? Mauss offers some insight:
“Though the male leadership might have equally strong patriarchal proclivities across all three stages, one can expect the value and power of women to diminish from the first to the third state. In the earlier stages, especially the first one, women are much needed for all kinds of church service. However, in the third stage, the membership is large enough that men can almost always be found for the most important roles. Accordingly, women can be shunted off into the less visible and less powerful auxiliary roles”7
Unknowingly the Church’s essay seems to confirm this. Footnote 13 of the essay states:
In general, female Quakers, Freewill Baptists, and northern and African Methodists enjoyed more liberty than women in the mainline churches.
In this footnote, we should readily see the “mainline churches” (e.g. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans) are what sociologists would call “churches.” In this footnote, the Freewill Baptist, Quakers, African Methodists, would be more “sectlike.”
We saw in early Christianity that as the Christian movement became more church-like, the “value and power of women diminished.” This is what happens. It’s been repeated over and over again. But that wasn’t enough for the early Christian Church. No – some of the Church Fathers even went so far as to change the gender of some of the early followers of Jesus and rewrite history. In doing so, they were able to show that the Church’s all-male clergy was the way it had always been. Everyone has their roles, and according to an all-male ecclesiastical leadership, a woman’s role is not in a place of ecclesiastical authority.
History is bound to repeat itself and it is for 21st century Mormonism. But does it have to?
1 Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 1–85. (click here to download article). The quote used in this blog post has the following footnote provided by Stapley and Wright: “Edward L. Kimball, Diary, September 7, 1979, typescript excerpt in our possession, courtesy of Edward Kimball. President Kimball’s mother recorded several instances when she administered rituals for health. See, e.g., Olive Woolley Kimball, Diary, May 17, 1901, and May 24, 1902, micro- film of holograph, MS 2136.”
2 For an amazing discussion about the importance of Mauss’ book, I encourage you to listen to Rational Faiths podcast, episode 80. Click here to listen or download on iTunes for free.
3 Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation, page 11.
4 For a fair treatment regarding Junia, click here
5 The word “apostles” is confusing for many Mormons as we have placed a narrow 21st century LDS definition on the word. For most Mormons, apostle means one of the 15 men in the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, or Jesus’ twelve apostles. In the New Testament, the word apostle comes from the Greek, “to commission, to send forth” (click here for Strong’s Concordance). So, Junia and her husband are to be understood as apostles in this broader sense – much like Paul the apostle – not as a member of Jesus’ twelve apostles he chose during his ministry.
6 By the 4th century C.E., the Christian movement would have been in the entrenchment/church-like stage. For by this time the Roman Emperor, Constantine I had converted to Christianity and in 325 C.E, Constantine organized the The Council of Nicaea.
7 Mauss, page 14
*After this post published at 06:00 am PST on October 28, 2015, I learned that Dr. Nancy Ross had touched on the subject of women loosing institutional authority over time. I contacted her the (same day this post published) about her writings and she provided me the following links:
This is right up my alley. Back in undergrad I wrote an honors thesis about the role of women in Early Christianity. While I was researching it I noticed this general trend where women would have prominence early on, either in the Early Christian movement or in other frontier movements (ie people on the geographical frontier or in theological frontiers, such as St. Francis’ sister, St. Clare. It was an intriguing trend to notice, especially as a wee undergrad.
Reading Dr. Bushman’s statements here makes so much sense. Of course the stripping of women’s authority would come from assimilationist forces. And of course women would, in the pre-assimilation sect, find ways to increase their sphere of influence, to branch out and use their skills and talents in ways that were barred by the rest of society.
It’s a stark reminder that a lot of current traditions and practices are more directly influenced by society’s mores and values rather than a balanced interpretation of God’s will.
We ALL have biases, prejudices, and privilege. Our challenge is to recognize them in ourselves and work to build a Zion free from such societal and cultural dead weight.
BTW: Just discovered this blog yesterday. I love it.
Ooh. Do you still have that thesis? We’d be interested in publishing it.
So illuminating, and soooo depressing. But insight can give us the seeds for hope and change, right? Thank you for connecting the dots.
“Why did women initially have authority to bless and heal, and then lose it over time?”
You’re begging the question that they no longer have this authority.