Excerpt – The Challenge of Honesty: Essays for Latter-day Saints by Frances Lee Menlove
I met Frances Menlove in person before I ever read her classic essay, “The Challenge of Honesty.” Even if I had at one time read it, it was before I’d really read it. I was heading the Sunstone Education Foundation at the time of our first meeting in 2002. Because of the deep immersion in Mormon discussions that was part of my Sunstone role, Frances’s name was familiar to me as one of the five original founders of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. From time to time in my discussions with others, I had heard about her powerful essay in the inaugural issue of the journal and how pivotal it had been to them. For whatever reason—perhaps sheer busyness and preoccupation with other things—my real first encounter with her writing came later.
So, who did I meet in 2002 at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium? It certainly wasn’t someone physically intimidating. She stands all of five feet, four inches and is small in all the ways that bodies are small. Even her hair is short. She was in her mid-sixties at that time, more than thirty years removed from the days of Dialogue’s founding. We at Sunstone were thrilled to have received her proposal to present a morning devotional titled, “A Listening Heart,” and I excitedly joined in with the large crowd who had turned up to encounter in person this icon who, after many years away, was re-engaging a community that in very real ways she had helped launch.
As Frances began to speak, every sense of smallness faded. It’s not that her voice is loud or her delivery style particularly practiced or her words show-offy. In fact, she speaks softly, her manner is quiet, and her language is the opposite of words meant to impress by their cleverness. Yet, seemingly without effort, she fills the room. She is warm. Her eyes sparkle. She says things straight, and we believe what she says. We believe because we sense that her wisdom has been fought for, lived into. And even as she tells them with conviction, we fully recognize that Frances doesn’t see herself as the center of her stories. She often notes how one of her favorite titles is “grandmother.” Perhaps the best way I can describe how she occupies hearts is that she does so the way grandmothers can—those grandmothers made of velvet-covered steel, twinkle-eyed iron, and full of delightful resolve.
“A Listening Heart” spoke directly to my spirit. I had to meet Frances, had to secure the chance to publish her remarks in Sunstone magazine. The positive reaction she received began a tradition of her giving a devotional at the annual symposium and the magazine publishing it afterward—a tradition still going strong more than a decade later. I’m delighted that both Sunstone and Signature Books have granted permission for us to include her devotionals in this collection. I’m also grateful for my ongoing and continually deepening and unfolding friendship with Frances that has grown and strengthened over the years through the intimacy of the author/editor relationship, which only those who have experienced it know how endearing and intimate it can be. We push and we pull, try ideas out and hear the other politely suggest that we “let that one percolate a while longer,” but we are always of one heart, sharing the same goal of letting the truth lead out and take on the most powerful expression it can, given our weaknesses. Through essays both new and old, that is what we have tried to do in this book.
Let’s talk a bit about “The Challenge of Honesty,” Frances’s first essay in Dialogue and the title of this collection. Why has it remained so consistently relevant? For starters, it provides a non-blinking examination of key aspects of genuine forthrightness, both with oneself and with others. It probes tensions within church institutions and culture, as well as within individual members. Just as significantly, the essay served as a spectacular framing piece for an impassioned group of 1960s-era Latter-day Saints who were committed to deep, honest dialogue even with all the challenges these kinds of examinations entail. It launched discussions about dichotomies that are perhaps even more deeply entrenched today. For instance, the essay speaks of “the myth of the unruffled Mormon,” which Frances describes as “the commonly held picture of Mormons as complete, integrated personalities, untroubled by the doubts and uncertainties that plague Protestants and oblivious to the painful searching and probings of non-believers.” This simple observation has given a name to a feeling shared by many people who struggle with the “discrepancy between what we ought to be and what we actually are, between what we are supposed to believe and what we actually believe.” Through the essay’s simple declaration, “In reality, Mormons are also subject to uncertainties and doubts,” Frances gives readers permission to name something big, to bring it into focus so that, as Martin Luther King Jr. taught in his letter from Birmingham Jail, “it can be seen and dealt with [and] be opened … to the natural medicines of air and light.”
Naming and bringing to light only get us so far, of course, but the essay is up to greater tasks. It takes its title seriously, recognizing that full honesty is challenging. And in discussing those challenges, Frances minces no words in her descriptions of various “traps” that often lead us as a church, culture, and as individuals away from developing the type of honesty required for the flourishing of genuine faith and psychological freedom. The essay carries its urgency throughout; it leaves no easy outs for those inclined toward spiritual laziness. It ends with characteristic directness and a message many in our culture don’t want to hear: we never get to rest; we will always be on this quest.
There should not be two churches, one as it actually is and another that is offered to the public. There must not be two selves, one calm and unruffled, basking in the “knowledge” of the Gospel, and the other private and unexplored, pushed to the outer limits of awareness. If individuals do not have an honest relationship with themselves, they cannot have an honest relationship with others. If they cannot avoid dishonesty in their thinking and dealings regarding the Church, they will not be able to avoid such things in the secular world. We must attempt to meet the challenge of honesty, realizing that our honesty is enmeshed within a whole framework of values, and that honesty, like truth, is always a partial achievement. There is only the latest word, never the last.
Her essay laid out a path and the task of a lifetime. It is a path she admits she is still traveling on.
As a testament to its power and seminal insights, “The Challenge of Honesty” has been reprinted in the best-of-Dialogue anniversary issue, as well as in several anthologies. Individuals who report being deeply affected by it are legion. I will offer bits from just three. William Bradshaw, now an emeritus professor of microbiology at Brigham Young University and a teacher whose influence in students’ lives extends far beyond the scientific facts and principles he teaches, reports that upon his first encounter with the essay, he was “stunned by the power of it. Here was someone wrestling with real honesty and not just at the level of our needing to give the money back when the cashier gives us too much change.” He reports that for many years he assigned the essay in several of his religion and Honors courses, that it led to healthy discussions with students about it being “okay to share our failures” and how no one outside of the LDS faith “should be able to say anything about difficult problems in the Church that we haven’t already said and discussed and faced up to ourselves.”
Longtime Sunstone board member D. Jeff Burton has stated that “The Challenge of Honesty” changed his life when he read it in 1966 as a college student. It taught him that “almost every Mormon experiences religious uncertainties, questions, and doubts of varying intensities” and that the Church and society generally give mixed signals about how to approach truth. These two basic understandings have underpinned his Mormon journey ever since—a journey that has led him to write his own classic article, one with its own coined term that is now part of the un-correlated Mormon lexicon, “The Phenomenon of the Closet Doubter,” as well as the book, For Those Who Wonder, and forty-plus columns for Sunstone magazine that explore faith and integrity with a community of readers who often feel as if they are living in Mormonism’s “borderlands.”
“The Challenge of Honesty” has also reached across denominational lines, contributing in its own way to closer relations between Mormonism’s “mountain” and “prairie” Saints—members of the Utah-based LDS Church and Missouri-based Community of Christ. As reported by Community of Christ professor William D. (Bill) Russell, in the late 1960s, many in that tradition’s leadership “were aware of the need for more honesty in the church. And Frances’s article hit the spot in that regard.” He tells of sending a copy to several of the church’s leaders, including President Wallace B. Smith, who praised its wisdom and thanked Bill for sending it to him. Bill wrote: “That first issue of Dialogue was wonderful, but Frances’s essay was just what we needed.” His admiration for her insights eventually developed into a friendship, one that has led them to often collaborate on Sunstone panel discussions and other presentations on key issues.
We are pleased to present “The Challenge of Honesty” as the title essay in this collection, essentially unchanged from the original text. However, at Frances’s urging, we have incorporated gender-inclusive pronouns and a more approachable first-person-plural voice. When written in 1966, Frances was fresh from earning a psychology doctorate from the University of Michigan and was fully immersed in that period’s academic presentation style.
So, what else will readers find in this collection? For one thing, they will find that she is still coining terms. Two of my favorites are the “smug trap” and the “temptation of certitude.” Readers will find that she continues to challenge unexamined assumptions, ideas, and attitudes that hurt us and hurt others. I wrote earlier about her voice. In this collection, she conveys how she has come to realize that the things that matter most cannot be conveyed with voice: “As I listen to my life, I find God is less easily spoken about—more audible in the silence, or between the lines, than in theological formulations. I no longer demand, expect, or even want clarity. I relish the mystery.” We learn that for Frances, what is really important is “compassion with action”; “beloving” (more than “believing”) God and others; that we never collapse the richness of “heart faith” into the flatness of “head faith”; that as we walk down our own Emmaus roads, we will sometimes find that we are the disciple and sometimes the teacher-stranger.
In her preface to this collection, Frances speaks of feeling like a “double belonger,” someone whose Mormon roots and varied adventures in other communities and settings have blended into an unfragmented whole, finding unity through a shared wellspring of Spirit. Even as her experiences have indeed blended, however, they have never lost their distinctiveness. Nowhere in this collection, even when she is engaging big thoughts and familiar wisdom, do her spirituality and unity of vision ever feel generic. We never lose touch with the particularity that is Frances, the double belonger. Her writings most often focus on simple truths, but her experiences with these truths provide openings for understanding to break through, understanding that backlights and adds extra depth and richness to whatever is foregrounded.
Like every author, and especially one who speaks so frankly, her writings have received brickbats along with kudos. She has been taken to task by people who find her challenges to re-examine basic assumptions to be contrary to the concept of steadfastness in relation to eternal doctrines, even as the opposite of courageous: that she takes the easy path of secular wisdom instead of revealed truth. For instance, a letter to Sunstone following publication of “Walking Down the Road to Emmaus” criticized her assumption that “homosexuality is a given, not a chosen” as “a blatant regurgitation of pop culture psychology and a complete contradiction of the words of modern prophets.” The reader insisted that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” and that “marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.” Frances’s reply was characteristically gracious: “In each generation, issues arise in which Church authority is held in tension with the demands of an informed conscience. Slavery is a good example. I chose the homosexuality example as an obligation of conscience. I believe that the gospel of Jesus is a gospel of radical inclusivity, and my guess is that God has greater tolerance for diversity than we do. The gospel is not fragile.”
Far more often, people express their gratitude to her. In response to her short reflection, “The Unbidden Prayer,” that explores issues surrounding individuals with ambiguous genitalia, a Dialogue reader wrote: “As I read, I found myself privately overwhelmed by the power of her message and, in an admittedly unscholarly manner, commenced planting tear-moistened kisses on the final, long-awaited paragraphs.” After telling her own story, this reader concluded: “At long last comes Menlove, like an angel of mercy, enlightening my understanding, lifting me above the chronic heartache and family wrenching with insightful perceptions of the larger context and the commonality of the problem. … It is immensely gratifying to me to finally have the nature of the beast clearly defined in a manner that resonates with my religious experience.”
Another thing readers will find characteristic of Frances’s later writings is that she often closes with a prayer, aphorism, or blessing. As mentioned above, readers will often find her taking on the cause of her gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and the ways that gender and notions of male and female are anything but binary categories. In other essays, readers will find Frances a champion for the poor and for the full flourishing of women. Always readers will find her in opposition to self-righteousness and certitude. Liberals, conservatives, and in-betweeners all get the treatment, along with those who ever put being right above being just and compassionate. But most of all, in these essays readers will find her relishing in mysteries—some of them hinted at by revelations from the Hubble Telescope and cosmological framings that to her are further witnesses to the wildness and delights of this universe, but most often mysteries that are suggested through simple gestures, through simply living and loving.
This collection opens with Frances’s first essay, followed immediately by two of her most recent ones, “Untangling Faith and Belief: A Modest ‘Trammel Reduction’ Proposal” and “If Not Now, When?—Mormon Women and the Priesthood.” These two previously unpublished essays are sisters of sorts to “The Challenge of Honesty” in the way they take on big themes. “Untangling” draws upon her broad reading of Christian thinkers, religious historians, and cultural critics in service of helping stave off an anti-intellectualism and fear of spiritual exploration that she sees growing within Mormonism. “If Not Now, When?” takes account of research that reveals more fluid roles in early Christianity, including women in important priesthood positions. It then highlights the ways that theological justifications of slavery and denial of women’s suffrage were overturned through careful teasing apart of the essential teachings of Jesus from the culture in which they were embedded. It calls for a similar, clear-eyed approach to the notion that God doesn’t want girls and women to bless or pass the sacrament and explores female leadership gifts within Mormonism.
Following these new essays, we present two short pieces previously published in Dialogue. The first of these, “Dialogue and the Sober Lessons of History,” represents Frances’s thoughts on the journal as an uncorrelated voice within Mormonism. It discusses history’s traps that lead to the mixing up of “timeless truths and historical accidents” or to “lethal religious certitude [in which] injustice is masked as God’s will. God is shrunk to fit the preconceptions of the moment, and the transitory is made sacred.”
I have already briefly discussed the second essay of this group, “The Unbidden Prayer.” This short, bold reflection emerged from Frances’s experience on a hospital ethics committee as it faced issues related to the birth and care of a child who appeared male on the outside yet had a uterus and ovaries. This case had a good ending; beautiful wisdom about how to meet the special needs of this child prevailed. Nevertheless, full-force into Frances’s heart came an unbidden prayer of gratitude that the parents of this child were not LDS, a prayer of thanks that this tiny infant would not grow up inside the Mormon story with its rigid thoughts about eternal gender. Readers will not easily forget this essay.
The book’s final section, containing Frances’s sermons and devotionals, begins with a reprinting of “Foot Care,” which was first published in Signature Books’s festschrift honoring Eugene England, Proving Contraries. The essay is a compelling and gorgeously rendered reflection on Frances’s experiences as a Red Cross mental health counselor at Ground Zero a few months after the 9-11 attacks. In this essay, we learn about much that our televisions and newspapers never told us, including the way George Washington’s pew, the bench in St. Paul’s Chapel where he worshipped on the day of his inauguration, was turned into a temporary podiatry clinic for relief workers to receive a doctor’s attention to their tired, cold, cut-up feet. “Foot Care” becomes a beautiful metaphor for the “small acts of service [that] bind us together in a community of love.”
The eleven short essays that close out the volume are all reprints, though with minor changes, of pieces that first appeared in Sunstone magazine. Each is drawn from the devotional sessions Frances gave at Sunstone symposia between 2002 and 2012. Each is brief. In fact, none will take more than ten minutes to read, but you’ll think about them all day and most likely all week. They pack a punch. In some, scriptural stories are stood on their heads, heroes become goats, sinners emerge as saints. Frances the grandmother appears from time to time, with all her smiling thunder. And always we find Frances the brave. We learn what Hubble shows. We reflect on gratitude and hope. We consider various candidates for wisdom that might serve as spiritual anchors. Always, whether through an offered prayer, hymn, or poem, each essay’s final moment brings a blessing.
If Not Now, When? Mormon Women and the Priesthood
In the LDS Church today, only boys and men are ordained to the priesthood. Only men can be prophets, apostles, stake presidents, and bishops. Only boys and men can bless and pass the sacrament. However, there are many roles I am uncertain about. For instance, although it is permissible for a woman to head up the LDS Church’s main publishing company and bookstore chain, I don’t know if only men are allowed to be the president of a Church school or director of the Tabernacle Choir. I do know, however, that neither a girl nor a woman is permitted to offer the prayer that blesses the sacrament.
Will this ever change? I think it will. Should girls and women be ordained to the priesthood? Yes. Let me try to convince you.
Contemporary biblical research has been shining a light on women in the early Jesus movement, and with the new evidence has come powerful new vistas into the Christian story from its beginnings on through the ways it has been shaped to the present. As scholars unpeel the layers, it is becoming clear that women as well as men were initiators of the Christian movement, women as well as men were at the center of early Christian history.1 If we let the conclusions drawn from this research really sink in, we are forced to face up to the fact that the history passed down through the generations about women and their roles in the early Jesus movement is a distorted history, and that this distorted history—the history I was taught in Sunday School—has skewed our present understandings of these formative decades of the Christian church, skewed perspectives that still affect us today. As Harvey Cox summarizes: “Women played a significantly larger leadership role than had previously been thought. But the power of false history to shape present perception goes even farther. Since the priestly elite insisted that women had always been subservient and marginal, people were unable to see clear evidence to the contrary.”2 If we seriously study these findings about women in ancient Christianity and then include the additional layer that claims the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faithfully reflects the earliest church, we naturally have to question whether the current roles women play within Mormonism truly represent a restoration of what Jesus intended. My strong sense is they don’t.
Women’s ecclesiastical leadership in early Christianity
In laying out the case for a new understanding of the ancient church, let me start with Junia, the female apostle. There is only one mention of Junia in the Bible. In a letter to the Romans, Paul praises Junia as “prominent among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7). Despite a few deliberate modern mistranslations of her name as masculine—“Junias” or “Junius”—by those who were likely uncomfortable with the idea of a female apostle, the vast majority of early commentators did not seem to question that this apostle was a woman. For example, John Chrysostom, whose writings are not often cited in support of progressive attitudes toward women, wrote of Romans 16:7, “O how great is the devotion of this woman that she should be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!”3
In their book The First Paul, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote that the obscuring of Junia’s sex “would be comic if it were not tragic.” They report that for a thousand years, commentators recognized correctly that Junia was a female name. Then she was turned into a male, using the argument that Junia was short for the male name Junianus—a claim that is “patently untrue because, although there were over 250 known cases of a female Junia in antiquity, there was not a single one of a male Junia, as the abbreviation of Junianus.” Calling it a “desperate claim,” Borg and Crossan suggest that the reason for attempting to hide Junia’s femaleness is “quite clear. If Junia were allowed to remain a female, then since she was ‘prominent among the apostles,’ it was obviously possible for a woman to be an apostle. Paul, of course, had no problem with that combination of gender and function.”4
The passage in Romans strongly suggests that Junia did not owe her position to Paul, as she and Andronicus, the other apostle Paul salutes in this verse, were “in Christ before I was.” Since Paul’s conversion occurred just a few years after the resurrection of Christ, scholars deduce that Junia must have been one of the earliest converts to Christianity, and perhaps one of the founders of the church at Rome.
While there is virtually no dispute that Junia was female and that Paul referred to her as an apostle, it is uncertain whether he meant to indicate that Junia was one of the twelve. For instance, there is precedent for using “apostle” to indicate a teacher or a messenger or missionary (the root of the word meaning “one who is sent away”). This does not mean, however, that Paul used the word “apostle” in an unrestricted, loose sense. He claimed to be an apostle even though he was not one of the twelve, and he defends his claim by asserting that he received the call from Christ himself. As Bernadette Brooten states, “We must assume that he recognized others as apostles only when he was convinced that their own apostolic charge had also come from the risen Lord. For Paul the category ‘apostle’ was perhaps of even greater import than for other New Testament writers because it concerned authority in the church of his own day and did not refer to a closed circle of persons from the past—for example, a restricted number which could not be repeated.”5
In her book When Women Were Priests, Karen Jo Torjesen synthesizes multiple sources of historical data to show that in addition to Junia, many women were preachers, prophets, pastors, and patrons in the early Christian movement.6 In the house-churches that comprised the earliest form of Christian gatherings, it is well-documented that women played key leadership roles. “Moreover,” writes Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “in the second and third centuries Christianity was still defending itself against the accusation that it was a religion of women and uncultured peoples.”7 In fact, Celsus, a second-century critic, dismissed Christianity out of hand as “a woman’s movement.”8 As further evidence that things were not always the way they are now, we find that male bishops and theologians of the first few centuries of Christian history were frequently dismissive of women. For instance, Tertullian (160–220 CE) complained that women were baptizing—and he wanted it stopped! Clearly, in the earliest days of Christianity, women were functioning in what are now defined as “priesthood roles,” compelling us once again to ask afresh if the tradition regarding women’s non-priesthood we have inherited truly reflects the early Jesus movement.
Would you believe there is a manual on church organization from the second century? There is! This manual is called Statutes of the Apostles. According to Torjesen, among its instructions is one that provides for the “churches to ordain two widows precisely for [the] ministry of praying and receiving revelation: ‘Let them ordain three widows, two to continue together in prayer for all who are in trials and to ask for revelations concerning that which they require.’” Torjesen continues: “Some revelations responded to individual needs for healing or advice; other revelations were messages for the community as a whole. These widows were also prophets.”9
In the “adding insult to injury” department for the LDS tradition, whose official Bible is the King James Version, there are substantive problems with how the KJV presents women that are not present in other key translations. For instance, in the same letter to the Romans in which Paul speaks of Junia (Rom. 16:1), the KJV refers to Phoebe as a “servant of the church.” The Greek word translated here as “servant” is diakonos, which is better translated as “deacon,” as one finds in the Revised Standard and New Revised Standard Versions, which are widely recognized as the most scholarly of the various translations. Furthermore, the King James scholars translated the same word as deacon in other places where it was used in reference to males, no doubt doing so based upon their inherited understanding about the appropriate roles for males and females. The King James Version, the Bible I read growing up, the one my grandfather gave me with my name embossed on the front, perpetuated the false impression that Junia was male, referring to her and Andronicus as Paul’s “kinsmen.”
The King James Version and many biblical interpretations and explanations evolved from patriarchal communities in which patriarchal structures were seen as so self-evident and divinely established that no justification or elaboration was needed. In addition to diakonos, there are other examples of words the original writers intended as inclusive that were translated to only refer to males. For example, in Matthew 18:2 of the KJV it reads, “Jesus called a little child to him, and set him in the midst of them.” The Greek text does not indicate whether the child was a boy or a girl. Using the pronoun “him” is thus gratuitous. Perhaps the child was a little girl! Also, the KJV sometimes inserts the word man in places where it is lacking in the original. In Revelation 3:20, the KJV says, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him.” Instead of the word man, the Greek word refers to anyone. Why exclude women? John 12:32 says in the KJV: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” In contrast, the NRSV reads “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
I find it helpful here to remember that the eighth Article of Faith cautions us about errors in the Bible’s translation. In today’s LDS Church, we most often talk about these errors as scribal mistakes, but we also speak sometimes of deliberate changes in doctrines about God. Perhaps we should consider expanding our musings about errors to consider questionable translation decisions that serve to diminish the roles and spiritual power of women. The Church’s enshrinement of the KJV and consequent discouragement of the use of modern translations that are informed by better and more recent biblical scholarship come with a price for girls and women.
But wait! The notion that the early Christian movement practiced gender equality is also too simplistic, for the New Testament abounds in passages speaking about the subordination of women. For instance, two passages in 1 Corinthians claim that women should not speak in church (14:34–35), nor pray or prophesy with their heads unveiled (11:2–16). Presumably they could do both with covered heads. In an even more limiting passage in 1 Timothy, Paul (or likely a pseudopigraphal author, as very few scholars believe the Apostle Paul wrote any of the pastoral epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) proclaims that women should dress modestly and not teach or have authority over a man; women are instead to keep silent. This passage even goes on to suggest that women are to be held responsible for the origin of sin in the world—for it was the woman who was deceived, not the man. Luckily, according to the writer of this epistle, women can be saved—through childbearing!
However, just as there were lines of thought like these that were designed to limit women’s leadership, there were radical ideas alive and well in these original communities. The ancient baptismal formula used by Paul in Galatians 3:27–28 was apparently in use even before Paul joined the Hellenistic Jewish-Christian church.10 It is very explicit (even in the KJV): “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In short, according to this formulation, whatever hierarchical distinctions existed outside of the church community no longer held inside the community. Gender hierarchy was one of those separators that was overcome through baptism. The early Christian community aspired to be a community of equals. Just as it should today.
Women and priesthood in early Mormonism
As the research mentioned above suggests, during the first few generations of the Christian church, a variety of notions about the limitations or lack of limitations on women’s roles existed side by side. Now, many centuries later, we seem to have a similar situation going on within many Christian denominations. Ordination of women has increased dramatically in the past century to the point where women are being ordained in the Anglican, Congregational, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches—among many others. And perhaps of greater interest to Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) authorized the ordination of women beginning in 1984. This cousin restoration church now has a woman serving in its First Presidency, as well as several women in its Council of the Twelve.
Could the LDS Church see a similar change? In a remark during a November 1997 television interview for an Australian television program, President Gordon B. Hinckley didn’t rule out the LDS ordination of women in the future:
David Ransom: At present women are not allowed to be priests in your Church. … Is it possible that the rules could change in the future? …
Gordon B. Hinckley: Yes. But there’s no agitation for that. We don’t find it. …11
Much like the re-examination of early Christianity, scholars of early Mormonism are re-examining the role of women in the days of Joseph Smith and arguing that women were explicitly receiving priesthood then as well. Closely reading the existing historical documentation, historian D. Michael Quinn makes the bold statement that “Mormon women have had the priesthood since 1843.”12 He further asserts, “Joseph clearly intended that Mormon women in 1842 understand their healings were to be ‘gifts of the priesthood,’ not simply ministrations of faith.”13 In 1877, Edward W. Tullidge published a book, The Women of Mormondom, in which he asserts that “the Mormon women, as well as men, hold the priesthood.”14 Several other LDS scholars have presented nuanced arguments disputing aspects of this claim, but no scholar has disputed that Mormon women performed ordinances of healing from the 1840s until 1946 when Apostle Joseph F. Smith instructed the Relief Society to stop the practice. He told the sisters that if they needed someone to administer to the sick, they should call an elder. Thus, the performance of these sacred ordinances, which women had been doing for more than a century, and that we are now taught requires a priesthood holder, was ended. Thus was this century-old sacred gift officially taken away from Mormon women.
In spite of new scholarship and President Hinckley’s declining to rule out the possibility that Mormon women might one day hold the priesthood, and in spite of what is happening in the Protestant denominations, there are signs the Mormon Church is actually moving backward on this issue. In a spring 1998 Dialogue essay urging women to speak out, Claudia Bushman outlines recent policies that have further constricted the role of women in the Church:
Another development has been the simplification of the Church for ease in exporting it to the growing international Church. The manuals have been rewritten at elementary school levels and many programs have been curtailed. Training sessions have been eliminated. Complex and challenging positions for women in our wards have disappeared. The organizations that women used to head and manage, the ones that were as demanding as a small business, are now under priesthood stewardship. Women used to have more opportunities to serve and develop their talents in Church work than they do now.15
Bushman states further, “In general, women in the Church live much more passive, isolated, and silent lives than men.” And she insists, “Men cannot be expected to concede either rights or privileges to women more rapidly than they are claimed.”16
While the patriarchal nature of western culture is undisputed, it is clear that the strict rules about who has the priesthood and the resultant authority residing only in priesthood holders, as now entrenched in the LDS Church, is not an accurate reflection of the gender roles in early Christianity, nor even of the gender roles in early Mormonism. History has shown us that any attempt to change deeply entrenched cultural beliefs, especially those which have a religious overlay, is daunting. However, I believe we may find some hope and wisdom by taking a brief look at two major controversies that erupted in our country’s history—slavery and women’s suffrage—both of which were rife with deeply embedded religious issues.
Throughout our country’s history of its struggle over slavery, the Bible was used profusely by both pro- and anti-slavery factions to bolster their positions. Both sides could quote passages proving they were right, and both sides did. Pro-slavery adherents pointed out vigorously that slavery was recognized as a legitimate social institution in the communities that produced both of the Bible’s testaments. Paul accepted the social institution of slavery as one of the facts of life. Pro-slavery owners took their Bible seriously.
They also took other Christian principles seriously. One example of this occurred in Virginia when a debate arose over the prohibition in the early church against Christians holding fellow believers as slaves and whether this principle was still in force. As evidence about how earnestly many Virginians took this to heart, while still wanting to maintain slaves, they preferred that their slaves not be baptized so they would not violate this principle, at least in its “letter” if not its “spirit.”17 In an effort to put this issue to rest, a law was passed in 1667 declaring that baptism did not change a slave’s legal status. The lawmakers based their action on the argument that slavery was a way of living and organizing aspects of society that was not totally condemned by the writers of the New or Old Testaments.
Very few people in western societies would make the same types of argument today. Slavery is evil, almost everyone agrees. This shift in attitudes came about through the work of anti-slavery preachers and theologians who helped extricate the essential teachings of Jesus from the cultural context in which they were embedded—a context in which slavery was an accepted social institution. In the battle of the pulpits, anti-slavery sermons countered the acceptance of slavery with the core Christian message that the gospel is extended to all, that the “least among us” are of infinite worth and must be treated as such. In this lively debate, the Good News prevailed; virtually all of today’s Christians agree that slavery is contrary to the essential gospel. Slavery is unworthy of a civilized people. Slavery is flat-out wrong, morally wrong.
The struggle over women’s right to vote is instructive as a second bit of evidence that cultural mores can indeed shift. This shift occurred as women’s rights increasingly became framed as human rights, so that the right to vote, the right to run for public office, and the right to equal pay for equal work are taken as givens.
It has not always been so, however, as it was less than a century ago, in 1920, that the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution was ratified, ensuring universal suffrage. For the twenty years preceding its ratification, a vocal minority of woman lobbied against women’s suffrage. Some suggested that a majority of women were against receiving the vote. Hear the opinion expressed in a 1906 editorial in Life magazine:
When it began to be feared that the organized action of women who wanted to vote would force the suffrage upon the large majority of women who do not want to vote, the anti-suffrage women organized to prevent it. … Have women a moral right to vote? There is no moral right about it.18
“There is no moral right about it!” Few today would agree with this sentiment. However, during this pivotal time in American history, many believed that a woman’s place in society was antithetical to voting, that it was against God’s natural social order as taught in the Bible. Here is an example from 1884. In an article titled “Women’s Suffrage,” Rev. Prof. H. M. Goodwin gives a detailed scholarly argument against giving women the vote. It is a long quotation with slightly dated language, but the basic themes of patriarchy come through clearly, themes that are not too distant echoes of the reasons given for denying women the priesthood.
This whole movement for female suffrage is, at least in its motive and beginning, a rebellion against the divinely ordained position and duties of woman, and an ambition for independence and the honors of a more public life; as if any greater and diviner honor could be given to woman than those which God has assigned her; as if the sanctities of home and the sacred duties of wife and mother, with all their sacrifices, were not a higher sphere and a truer glory—a glory she shares with the world’s Redeemer—than the vulgar publicity of the polls and hustings, or even the Senate and the bar.
The practical tendency of women’s suffrage, as all must see, is to impair the unity of the family as a social organism, being itself a denial of it, and to create discord and rivalries between husband and wife, who by the divine ordinance are “no more twain but one flesh,” but by this act are legally declared to be not one but two. Besides, such suffrage is a tacit declaration that the husband and father cannot be trusted to protect the interests of wife and daughter in political as in domestic affairs, which is a sure method of relaxing his sense of responsibility and loosening the ties of family affection. Where there is true affection, the wife, if she vote at all, will vote with her husband, even against her own interest; and where there is not, the multiplying of causes of discord will not remedy but only aggravate the evil.
Not the least disastrous result would be the intolerable burden thrust upon women’s shoulders by imposing political questions and duties in addition to those already borne. Domestic and social duties, never so onerous and distracting as now, the care and nurture of children, with the high and sacred responsibilities involved in these, are enough, and more than enough for most women in this age. To add to these the cares of public life and the turbulent excitements of politics, would be indeed to break the bruised reed.19
In the slavery and universal suffrage debates, we see religious arguments on both sides, just as we see them on both sides of today’s issue of women’s ordination within wider Christianity, as well as within Mormonism. And indeed, the longevity and entrenchment of the boys-and-men-only priesthood policy makes changing it a tad daunting.
But let’s take a minute for a humility pause. It’s too glib, a bit too easy, to look back with disdain at those who used religious or biblical arguments against the abolition of slavery or against women’s suffrage. Religion is deeply embedded and shaped by its cultural context, and as times and cultures change it is sometimes difficult to discern what is at the core of Jesus’s message and what is an overlay of past cultures. This process of discernment requires recognizing the moral implications of situations and courses of action; it requires making careful distinctions between tightly woven strands. John Henry Hopkins (1792–1868), Episcopal Bishop of Vermont, wrote about his personal struggle with the discernment process on the issue of slavery:
If it were a matter to be determined by personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I would be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery, for all my prejudices of education, habit, and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not be “wise in my own conceit.” I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty.20
Hopkins could not allow scripture to be dethroned. He felt compelled to defend biblical authority. He reluctantly refused to join the abolitionist cause out of reverence for the authority of the Bible, which does not condemn slavery but merely assumes it. Hopkins could “imagine no transgression more odious in the sight of God, and more sure to forfeit his blessing, than the willful determination to distort his revealed Word, and make it speak, not as it truly is, but as men, in their insane pride of superior philanthropy, fancy that it ought to be.” The abolitionists, unable to find explicit biblical condemnation of slavery, turned to the spirit of Jesus’s words and life—arguments from conscience—to make their case.
Discernment is not easy. I imagine Hopkins would be intrigued by our contemporary understanding of how religious ideas are transformed as they move across time and place. I like to imagine him pleased with our contemporary consensus within Christianity about the evils of slavery.
It is not easy letting go of institutionalized practices like a males-only priesthood. But advocates for ending slavery and promoting women’s suffrage showed us how to repudiate social structures that previously had been acceptable: recapture Jesus’s core message from the cultural context that has obscured it. Just as in these other issues, new scholarship allows us to see how the influence of the context in which male supremacy was often assumed prevented us from enacting Christ’s fully inclusive vision. We can now repudiate patriarchy and the notion that God doesn’t want girls and women to bless or pass the sacrament.
This change, this repudiation of cultural overlays, is happening in real time in blogs, closed and open forums, and chat rooms in which Mormons—women and men—are musing, arguing, supporting, comforting, laughing, and engaging each other over women’s priesthood and other issues that seem to be in place through the force of culture and unquestioned, inherited assumptions. These forums and discussions have proliferated with excitement and energy, with the most thoughtful essays acting much like Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses on the Castle Church door, being copied, pasted, and passed around and sparking debates in the public square that are slowly reshaping our culture’s thinking about things we’ve inherited that might need tweaking. Much like the revolution that came as a result of the printing press, the Internet is profoundly shaping our religious sensibilities. The Internet is a participatory place where women do have a voice. It is a game changer. Creation is ongoing. We live in a world that is not static. “The Spirit blows wherever it pleases; You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8).
The tasks of one age are not necessarily the tasks of another. I am suggesting that one of the tasks of our age is to bring into reality that ancient baptismal formula: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female: for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27–28, emphasis added). Perhaps the new research, along with the Internet and the energy of people meeting each other and re-evaluating their experiences, will prove to be the key in allowing us to embrace this egalitarian vision, this discipleship of equals, and transform it into a new social reality.
The LDS Church needs to extricate itself from the moral incoherence of choosing to honor the patriarchal norms of the Greco-Roman gender system, and it needs to restore women, all women, including single women, to full partnership in the leadership of the Church and the life of congregations. Just as it opened up priesthood and temple blessings to black Latter-day Saints (and who among us would want to reverse that wonderful change?), it must allow women the right to embrace and enlarge their capacities for all spiritual gifts, including prophetic leadership. In the cases of polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, and other less-publicized shifts in policy, the Church has demonstrated resilience in the past, and I hold out hope that it may do so again now. As my grandfather occasionally opined, “The Church has a way of righting itself.” This means, of course, ordaining not just boys and men to the priesthood, but also girls and women. There is ample historical evidence from both the early Christian period and from recent scholarship into early Mormonism to suggest that it is time to reject the exclusivity of boys- and men-only ordination practices. With the suffragettes of the last century, we must never forget that equality of women is a human rights issue, one of social justice, a movement of human spirit. The current situation is wrong, morally wrong. The time has come to recover the understanding that we are baptized into a community that transcends race, nationality, and gender. The time has come to ordain women to the priesthood. Or so it seems to me.
1. For a good summary of recent research into these areas, see Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). These two church historians present fully translated literary, epigraphical, and canonical references to women in the early church. They chronicle evidence of women’s participation in the early Jesus movement and their eventual exclusion from its leadership roles.
6. Karen Jo Torjesen, When Women Were Priests (New York: Harper Collins, 1995). In addition to early Christianity, the Bible gives other hints about women in Old Testament times who held powerful leadership positions, such as Miriam, the sister of Moses and a “prophetess” (Ex. 15:20), and Deborah, who is another prophetess and “judge” of Israel (Judg. 4:4).
20. James Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005), cited in Martin E. Marty, “Slave to Scripture,” CONTEXT: Martin E. Marty on Religion and Culture 39, no. 10 (Oct. 2007) B: 4.