Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Authority (Part 12: The Unsettled Doctrine of Premortality)

You may be wondering what this topic has to do with authority. Well, quite a bit, it turns out, but you’ll have to wait for two weeks to see where I’m going with this because it’s rather involved. So hang in there until part 14. What follows in the next three posts is an abbreviated version of a longer article that may appear sometime next year in print. We’ll see.
To begin this exploration of premortality, let me suggest that although our understanding of the particulars of the premortal existence is certainly meager, without this doctrine, the boundary between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity blurs in certain ways, because it has inescapable ramifications not only for how we understand our own eternal nature and potential, but also how we view our relationship with God, including the question of why and how he is able to exercise authority over us. In short, this doctrine is perhaps the most distinctively “Mormon” of all our doctrines and is something we should neither gloss over nor disavow in any way. This tenet is not just an afterthought to Joseph Smith’s other teachings; it is, in a fundamental way, the culmination of what he was trying to teach the Saints in Nauvoo, and if we were to fully embrace this doctrine, it might have several consequences, not least of which would be to revolutionize the way we understand and exercise authority in the Church.

A Selective History of the Doctrine of Preexistence
In 2013, BYU Studies Quarterly published an essay on adoption theology by Samuel Brown, a theology that he claims, among other things, offered an alternative to the doctrine of spirit birth that has prevailed in the Church since shortly after the death of Joseph Smith.1 Before beginning my edit of Brown’s essay, I spent some time reacquainting myself with the history of this doctrine. What I learned reinforced for me just how crucial our view of the premortal experience is and how important it is to examine the ramifications of certain beliefs, some of which remain very much unsettled.
The doctrine of spirit birth plays an integral role in the development of the more encompassing doctrine of preexistence. Blake Ostler recounts a portion of this doctrinal history in a 1982 Dialogue article,2 as does Charles Harrell in a 1988 BYU Studies article3 and in his more recent “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology.4 Ostler and Harrell begin with early Mormonism (roughly 1830–1835) when Latter-day Saints accepted the Catholic/Protestant idea of an infinite and absolute God and perhaps had no well-developed concept yet of an actual premortal existence of humanity. It has been argued that the spiritual creation mentioned in what is now the book of Moses5 was understood by early Mormons to involve a strictly conceptual creation rather than an actual creation of all things, including men and women, in spirit form. Ostler presents this argument,6 for instance, but Harrell contends that “no record from the early era of the Church offers any evidence that this spiritual creation was ever viewed in any way other than as a spirit creation.”7 Although we may not be able to discern exactly how early Latter-day Saints understood the concept of “spiritual creation,” we do know that Joseph Smith introduced the idea of uncreated intelligence in 1833 with the revelation that is now D&C 93,8 but at that time the word intelligence was understood differently than Mormons today interpret the scriptural text. The notion of uncreated intelligence was understood to mean a general knowledge or awareness and not a personal preexistent spirit or unembodied but self-aware entity.9 Contemporary Latter-day Saints have been guilty of superimposing their current definition of terms on earlier statements, which creates problems in understanding what those early Latter-day Saints actually believed.
In 1839, Joseph Smith publicly rejected the notion of creatio ex nihilo and introduced the idea that each individual’s spirit was not created and has always existed.10 This teaching appeared on several different occasions,11 and again what Joseph meant exactly with the term spirit is subject to debate, but he did use the term soul twice in describing the eternal existence of human beings, suggesting something more than a form of nonsentient intelligence. B. H. Roberts, for instance, insisted that Joseph was referring only to the mind or intelligence of man, not to his spirit body,12 but Joseph could very well have been referring to the spirit as an embodied form. In 1842, Joseph began teaching that spirit is matter.13 He expanded the idea of uncreated, eternal spirits and their relationship to God until his death in 1844. In the so-called King Follett discourse, for example, Joseph taught that God found “himself in the midst of spirit and glory [and] because he was greater saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.”14 If the record is an accurate reflection of what Joseph taught,15 it appears he understood that God did not “create” his spirit children, but found them and entered into a covenant relationship with them. This is consistent with the book of Abraham, which explains that God “came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelligences” that Abraham was shown (Abraham 3:21). Two comments on this statement: First, if neither God nor the human race has a beginning, what is this beginning Abraham talks about, which is also mentioned in D&C 93:29 (“Man was also in the beginning with God”)? It must be the beginning of our association with our Father. If we accept the notion that God was once as we are, we also must accept the idea that he was not always God and that he was therefore not always our Father, which means our relationship with him had to have a beginning. Second, Joseph seemed to use the terms intelligence, spirit, and soul interchangeably at times. Two verses later in Abraham’s record, referring to the “intelligences” mentioned in verse 21, the account states that “God saw these souls16 that they were good” (emphasis mine), so he likely wasn’t seeing what modern-day Mormons would consider “intelligences,” namely, some sort of self-aware prespirit entities, because this concept did not develop until many years after Joseph’s death.
In all of Joseph’s teachings about the eternal nature of God and his children, there is no mention of exactly how they are related. Harrell and Ostler agree that there is no record of Joseph introducing the idea of a literal spirit birth, although Harrell argues that “Joseph Smith must be credited with having provided the impetus that led to an awareness of spirit birth.”17 Terryl Givens goes a step further, suggesting that Joseph must have given his close associates reason to believe not only that spirits are eternal but also that something such as spirit birth occurs. For instance, “William Clayton . . . recorded Smith as teaching that marriages which persist in the eternities will include the power to ‘have children in the celestial glory,’ implying that we may have been created by a comparable process. . . . Other evidence, however, suggests that Smith considered spirit and intelligence to be synonymous concepts, referring to an eternally existent entity.”18 If he had lived a year or two longer, he may have resolved this uncertainty, but we have no way of knowing which path Joseph’s thought may have taken. After his demise, though, his followers began openly developing the doctrine of spirit birth. According to Brown,
By 1845, several Church leaders were arguing publicly that Joseph Smith’s divine anthropology required a birth from prespirit into spirit, a transition graphically patterned on the process of gestation and parturition familiar from human biology. There is a relentless, albeit asymmetrical, logic in this attempt to describe the internal workings of the system Joseph Smith had revealed only in broad contours. . . . They could as easily have chosen the spiritual rebirth of conversion and baptism, or the covenantal fatherhood proclaimed by King Benjamin, or the rebirth of resurrection as the exemplar for the process of premortal birth, but they chose mortal parenthood as their reference point.19
Ostler indicates that after Joseph’s death Brigham Young and Orson Pratt, who disagreed on the basic nature of God and man, both nevertheless adopted the idea of a literal spirit birth.20 Although others promoted the idea of spirit birth,21 Young and Pratt were its two most influential early proponents. Young preferred the idea that personal identity was created at the organization of the spirit body and that intelligence was a raw material of sorts, without self-awareness or agency or accountability.22 Pratt’s theory, by contrast, involved “particles” that were eternal, self-aware, and capable of being governed by laws. They were organized at spirit birth into a new configuration that required them to act, feel, and think in union (as a spirit body).23 Both Young and Pratt agreed, however, that both man and God did not exist as autonomous, self-aware individuals until after they had been organized through the process of spirit birth.
In 1884, after the deaths of Young and Pratt, Charles Penrose promoted a theory somewhat similar to Orson Pratt’s, endorsing again the idea that only “in the elementary particles of His organism” did God have no beginning and that “there must have been a time when [God] was organized.”24 In 1907, B. H. Roberts published the idea that before spirit birth we existed as individualized “intelligences” who were then given spirit bodies through a process similar to mortal conception, gestation, and birth.25 Whether this idea is original to Roberts is uncertain, perhaps even doubtful. As Jim Faulconer has pointed out,26 in 1895, Brigham Young Academy instructor Nels L. Nelson published an article in The Contributor in which he proposed three components in man: the ego, the spirit body, and the physical body. Defining the first component, Nelson wrote: “The ego [is] that in us which enables us to say: ‘This is I, and this is the universe.’ This principle is co-eternal with God. It never had a beginning nor can it ever have an end. It might appropriately be called the mind of the spirit.”27 This notion of an uncreated ego, he claimed, was the only way he could see to harmonize Joseph Smith’s teaching that the spirit is uncreated and the later-developed notion that it is born of Heavenly Parents. Roberts had certainly read Nelson’s article, for he mentioned both “Prof. Nelson” and the “ego” in his own 1907 article,28 but he expanded upon this reasoning and perhaps adopted the terminology of Smith’s King Follett discourse, renaming this uncreated component the “intelligence,” a self-aware prespirit entity. Roberts was not alone in promoting this theory. In the draft of his 1914 Rational Theology that was submitted for approval to the First Presidency, John A. Widtsoe promoted ideas similar to Roberts’s.29
Significantly, Roberts’s explanation of premortality was rejected by the First Presidency, as was Widtsoe’s, and the relevant text was deleted from Rational Theology before it was published; Roberts’s magnum opus, The Truth, the Way, and the Life, in which he outlined his view of a two-tiered premortality, was not published until sixty-one years after his death (jointly by BYU Studies and Deseret Book, followed the next year by a Signature Books edition). But because of the inherent appeal of the idea of sentient prespirit intelligences, over time it gained ascendency and is now probably the most common understanding of the premortal existence held among Latter-day Saints.30
Bruce R. McConkie and others, however, promoted a neoorthodox view more similar to Brigham Young’s, insisting that men and women did not exist as conscious entities before spirit birth.31 The Church has never weighed in with an official stance on this disagreement over our prespirit status (if we indeed had one), and so a degree of ambiguity reigns at this fundamental level of LDS theology. The one constant, however, from 1845 to the present—appearing in the theories of Pratt, Young, Penrose, Nelson, Roberts, McConkie, and many others—is the idea that we are begotten by our Heavenly Father and given birth by a Heavenly Mother in a process similar to human conception, gestation, and parturition.

Darwin’s Contribution to LDS Theology
Ironically, it may have been Charles Darwin who indirectly cemented spirit birth’s place in the Mormon doctrine of premortality.32 Five years after Young’s death, arguing against Darwin’s theory of evolution, which presented challenges to Christian theology in general, Orson Whitney employed the notion of spirit birth in his defense of the biblical account of earth’s (and man’s) creation: “Man is the direct offspring of Deity, of a being who is the Begetter of his spirit in the eternal worlds, and the Architect of his mortal tabernacle in this. . . . For man is the child of God, fashioned in His image and endowed with His attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable in due time of becoming a God.”33
Twenty-seven years later, in November 1909, in the wake of a Brigham Young University centennial celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin and troubling statements in support of Darwin by faculty member Ralph Chamberlin and others, the First Presidency issued a document (“The Origin of Man”) drafted by Orson Whitney and based largely on his 1882 article. This document included the following:
The Father of Jesus is our Father also. . . . Jesus, however, is the firstborn among all the sons of God—the first begotten in the spirit, and the only begotten in the flesh. He is our elder brother, and we, like Him, are in the image of God. All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity. . . . The doctrine of the pre-existence . . . shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality.34
This doctrinal exposition effectively sealed the deal in terms of casting spirit birth as the official doctrine of the Church regarding our premortal relationship with our Father in Heaven.
The doctrine of spirit birth gained traction only after Joseph Smith’s death; nevertheless, it seems to be the only official teaching of the Church today, although the wording current Church leaders use is often more cautious and measured than in earlier days, likely because of the adverse reaction this doctrine elicits from mainstream Christians.35
It may be that the doctrine of literal spirit birth emerged as an attempt to bridge the conceptual gap between Joseph’s early revelations (especially Moses 3) about a spiritual creation of everything, including humankind, preceding physical creation and his later teachings about uncreated and eternal spirits. This new doctrine, however, gave birth to another conundrum: how to account for evil and accountability in the world if, as Brigham Young taught, God created the spirits of men and women from impersonal eternal material called “intelligence.”36 This conundrum is identical to the dilemma created by the Christian doctrine creatio ex nihilo, merely moving it back one link in the chain of existence. B. H. Roberts (perhaps following the lead of Nels Nelson) solved this problem by introducing the idea of prespirit beings called “intelligences,” thus allowing for eternal inequality and accountability, but this idea introduced other philosophical difficulties, which are outlined briefly by Blake Ostler.37 What we are left with today are certain unsettled points of doctrine.
Stay tuned.
1. Samuel M. Brown, “Believing Adoption,” BYU Studies Quarterly 52, no. 2 (2013): 45–65.
2. Blake T. Ostler, “The Idea of Pre-Existence in the Development of Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 1 (1982): 59–78. Thomas G. Alexander also offers this argument in “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine from Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology,” Sunstone 5 (July–August 1980): 33 n. 23.
3. Charles Harrell, “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830–1844,” BYU Studies 28, no. 2 (1988): 75–96.
4. See Charles R. Harrell, “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Draper, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), ch. 11.
5. See Moses 3:1–7; 5:24; 6:36, 51, 59, 63.
6. Ostler, “Idea of Pre-Existence,” 61.
7. Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 80.
8. D&C 93:24 states, “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”
9. Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 82–83. Harrell quotes Parley P. Pratt and Thomas Ward to support the notion that the early Saints did not understand intelligence to mean a “personal preexistent spirit.”
10. Ostler, “Idea of Pre-Existence,” 61. See also Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 85. It should be noted that Joseph Smith’s understanding of the premortal existence of the human race and related concepts evolved and expanded over time. To try to harmonize all of his statements and even his revelations on the subject is probably impossible. Consequently, his later statements deserve more attention than his earlier statements. For example, Moses 6:36, revealed in June 1830, speaks of “spirits that God had created.” Likewise, Moses 3:5 refers to “the children of men” and that “in heaven I created them.” But in 1839, Joseph began teaching the doctrine of uncreated spirits: “The Spirit of Man is not a created being; it existed from Eternity & will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be Eternal.” Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), 9, quoting the August 8, 1839, entry in Willard Richards Pocket Companion. In February 1840, he taught, “I believe that the soul is eternal; and had no beginning.” Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 33, quoting Matthew Livingston Davis, a journalist who reported a speech Joseph gave on February 5, 1840. It is difficult to reconcile these statements.
11. Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 85, gives quotations from Joseph Smith in August 1839, February 1840, January 1841, March 1841, April 1842, and April 1844 to support this doctrinal innovation.
12. See Roberts’s footnote to his amalgamated version of Joseph’s King Follett Discourse, recorded in Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 6:311 (hereafter cited as History of the Church).
13. “In tracing the thing to the foundation, and looking at it philosophically we shall find a very material difference between the body and the spirit:—the body is supposed to be organized matter, and the spirit by many is thought to be immaterial, without substance. With this latter statement we should beg leave to differ—and state that spirit is a substance; that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic, and refined matter than the body;—that it existed before the body, can exist in the body, and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection be again united with it.” Joseph Smith Jr., “Try the Spirits,” Times and Seasons 3 (April 1, 1842): 745. See also Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 84. On May 17, 1843, Joseph taught this doctrine at Ramus, Illinois; his words as recorded by William Clayton were later canonized as D&C 131:7.
14. Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 360, quoting William Clayton’s transcript.
15. The King Follett Discourse is generally quoted from one of two amalgamated texts, one published in History of the Church, and a more recent amalgamation by Stan Larson, published in BYU Studies in vol. 18, no. 2 (1978). These amalgamations are attempts to weave a coherent thread of oratory from four different sets of notes, all taken in longhand. The quotation here is taken from William Clayton’s account, not from an amalgamated text, but since it is a longhand transcript, it may not represent exactly what Joseph said.
16. Obviously, Joseph didn’t mean by “souls” our current understanding, which is body and spirit welded together (see D&C 88:15).
17. Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 91.
18. Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 156.
19. Brown, “Believing Adoption,” 49.
20. See Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 64–65.
21. For example, Lorenzo Snow had speculated on the doctrine as early as 1842. Lorenzo Snow to Elder Walker, February 14, 1842, Lorenzo Snow Notebook 1841–1842, MS 2737, pp. 75–77, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City. William W. Phelps had also written the notion into a hymn published several months after Joseph Smith’s death. William W. Phelps, “Come to Me,” Times and Seasons 6 (January 15, 1845): 783.
22. See discussion in Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 66. For examples of Brigham Young’s teachings see Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855–86), 2:135 (“The origin of thought was planted in our organization at the beginning of our being”); 6:31 (“What is the mind? It is that character that was made and fashioned after the image of God before these bodies were made”); 7:285 (“The life that is within us is a part of an eternity of life and is organized spirit, which is clothed upon by tabernacles”); 8:205 (“God is the source of all intelligence, no matter who possesses it, whether man upon the earth, the spirits in the spirit-world, the angels that dwell in the eternities of the Gods, or the most inferior intelligence among the devils in hell”). I should note here that as of the next issue of BYU Studies Quarterly, the practice of quoting from the Journal of Discourses will be seen as a bit iffy. An article we are publishing discusses the work of LaJean Carruth, an employee at the Church History Library, who for years has been transcribing the shorthand of George D. Watt, the secretary who recorded many of the speeches published in JD. What this project reveals is that the published version of a discourse often differs significantly from what the speaker actually said, with Watt either heavily editing or adding material to the speeches in order to make them read better (and make the speaker sound more educated). Often this process removed the personality of General Authorities from the discourses, particularly in the case of someone like Brigham Young. So we must now take quotes from JD with more than a pinch of salt.
23. See discussion in Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 64–65. Pratt taught that “each particle eternally existed prior to its organization; each was enabled to perceive its own existence; each had the power of self-motion.” Orson Pratt, The Seer (Washington, D.C., 1853), 102. These particle entities would be “organized in the womb of the celestial female” and become thereby in individual spirit body. “The particles that enter into the organization of the infant spirit are placed in a new sphere of action . . . [and] can no longer act, or feel, or think as independent individuals, but the law to control them in their new sphere requires them to act, and feel, and think in union.” Pratt, The Seer, 103.
24. Charles Penrose, in Journal of Discourses, 26:23, (November 16, 1884).
25. B. H. Roberts, “Immortality of Man,” Improvement Era 10, no. 6 (April 1907): 406–7, available at
26. James Faulconer, “The Mormon Understanding of Persons . . . and God,”
27. Nels L. Nelson, “Theosophy and Mormonism,” The Contributor 16, no. 12 (1895): 736.
28. Roberts, “Immortality of Man,” 407, 408.
29. See discussion in Alexander, “Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” 30–31. See also John A. Widtsoe, Rational Theology as Taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: General Priesthood Committee, 1915), 26–27, 64–6, 146, for the published version of Widtsoe’s ideas.
30. “In spite of such cautionary statements [as made by Joseph Fielding Smith], numerous Mormon writers have assumed personal eternalism to be Mormonism’s official doctrine at least since 1940.” Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 72. In the April general conference of 2015, Elder D. Todd Christofferson gave this doctrine a semi-official stamp of approval by presenting it as if it were a settled matter: “Prophets have revealed that we first existed as intelligences and that we were given form, or spirit bodies, by God, thus becoming His spirit children.” D. Todd Christofferson, “Why Marriage, Why Family,” Ensign 45, no. 5 (May 2015): 50.
31. Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 72. See, for instance, Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 387 (“The intelligence or spirit element became intelligences after the spirits were born as individual entities”). See also Alexander, “Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” 32.
32. Credit for this insight goes to a blogger using the pseudonym “aquinas,” who wishes to remain anonymous and has since removed all of the relevant posts from the Internet.
33. Orson F. Whitney, “Man’s Origin and Destiny,” Contributor 3, no. 9 (June 1882), 269–70.
34. Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, Anthon H. Lund, “The Origin of Man,” Improvement Era 13, no. 1 (November 1909): 75–81; also reprinted as “Gospel Classics: The Origin of Man,” Ensign 32, no. 2 (February 2002): 26–30. 
35. Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, for instance, made this statement in 2012: “Members of the Church understand that God the Father is the Supreme Governor of the universe, the Power that gave us spiritual being, and the Author of the plan that gives us hope and potential. He is our Heavenly Father, and we lived in His presence as part of His family in the premortal life. . . . Our Heavenly Father has chosen not to reveal many details of our premortal life with Him. . . . Every human being is a begotten spirit son or daughter of our Heavenly Father. Begotten is an adjectival form of the verb beget and means ‘brought into being.’ Beget is the expression used in the scriptures to describe the process of giving life.” Quentin L. Cook, “The Doctrine of the Father,” Ensign, February 2012, 33–34. In admitting that God has revealed very little about our premortal existence, Elder Cook employs, interestingly, a carefully worded and rather broad (if not figurative) definition of the term beget.
36. The problem of trying to reconcile God’s goodness with the presence of evil in the world, often referred to as theodicy, is closely intertwined with the ideas presented in this essay. For a thorough discussion of this problem, see David L. Paulsen and Blake Thomas Ostler, “Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith on the Problem of Evil,” in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 237–84.
37. Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 74. “The doctrine of personal eternalism raises problems for Mormon thought. If the number of intelligences is infinite, then an infinite number of intelligences will remain without the chance to progress by further organization. If, on the other hand, the number of intelligences is finite, the eternal progression of gods resulting from begetting spirits must one day cease. Either way, the dilemma remains.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Authority (Part 11: Priesthood Bans and Temple Worship)

In the tenth post in this series, I looked at the idea of priestesses and how this inadequately understood term might fit in with our modern concept of priesthood. In this post, I will look at some inconsistencies in the relationship between priesthood and temple worship and offer my personal perspective on the idea of ordaining women to the priesthood.

The 1978 Revelation and Temple Service
Much has been written about the priesthood ban and the 1978 revelation that ended it, but my wife, through her studies, became aware of a question that has not received much attention. Why did the priesthood ban prevent baptized black men and women (and boys and girls) from entering the temple to perform baptisms for the dead? Apparently, the only consistent requirements for serving as a proxy in this ordinance are having been baptized and living a righteous life. Prior to 1978, young nonblack women who did not hold the priesthood were allowed to serve as proxies in being baptized for the dead. If priesthood was not required for their participation in these ordinances, why, then, were faithful blacks not permitted to enter the temple and be baptized for their deceased ancestors?1
We might also ask why, to this day, young men who are not ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood are not permitted to serve as proxies in these vicarious baptisms. It makes sense that to serve as proxy, a person would need to be baptized. But what does being given the Aaronic Priesthood have to do with being baptized for someone else? There is no apparent connection, especially since young women can be baptized vicariously without the priesthood. In this case, there is actually a reverse inequality. For example, a young man, a baptized member whose non-LDS father has forbidden him from being ordained to the priesthood, is not permitted by the Church to go to the temple and serve as proxy in baptisms for the dead, while his sister is permitted to do so. This policy makes little sense. Restricting participation to those age twelve and above, when baptism itself can occur at age eight, is also difficult to understand.
Taking this a step further, since faithful nonblack women (who did not hold the priesthood) were permitted to receive their endowments prior to 1978, why were faithful black men and women not permitted to receive their endowments? The lack of priesthood was not a barrier, apparently, for nonblack women. The Church does have a very vague tradition, dating back to Joseph Smith, that women somehow (though not by ordination) receive the priesthood through the endowment,2 but if that were the case, why do we not acknowledge that priesthood in the everyday Church? Apparently, this is a doctrine that has been abandoned over the years. And so we are again in no-man’s land: we have a requirement that males must hold the priesthood to participate in any ordinances in the temple, but women are not so restricted. Black women prior to June 1978, however, were not permitted to receive temple ordinances for themselves or to serve as proxies in vicarious ordinances, almost as if they were being told they should have had the priesthood, since the priesthood ban was what was keeping them out of the temple. But of course nonblack women were allowed to participate in temple ordinances without the priesthood.
This seeming cauldron of confusion regarding priesthood and temple policies both past and present stems almost entirely from one of the first notions introduced in this series—that the Mormon priesthood is unique in all the world of religion in that it is an abstract concept, a power or authority one can hold separate from any priestly function in performing rituals or ordinances. Indeed, as pointed out in the previous post, in the case of temple ordinances we have the unique situation where individuals perform priestly functions without any official priesthood ordination.

A Little Personal History, Followed by a Personal Perspective
I have a confession to make. I grew up a racist. No, I wasn’t a member of the junior Ku Klux Klan. But I grew up in North Ogden, Utah, a very Mormon suburb of Ogden. I attended Weber High School. There was not one single black in the entire school of 1,500 students. We had maybe three or four Asian-Americans, a couple of Native Americans, and perhaps a couple of token Hispanics, but I don’t think either of them spoke Spanish. We did have a few genuine cowboys, but that’s another ethnic category altogether. In short, this was a very, very Caucasian school. Lily white. The student body came from the suburbs, north of Ogden, the farming communities west of Ogden, and the frozen villages over the mountains in Ogden Valley where David O. McKay grew up. To my knowledge, I did not meet a black person until I played high school basketball against Bonneville High, and even then my only interaction with my black opponent was maybe a foul or two. I grew up believing the racial stereotypes that prevailed in a school such as Weber was in the early 1970s. And I am not too proud to admit that I likely used a racial slur or two. This was simply the culture I grew up in. It was based on ignorance.
Then I was called on a mission to Germany. In my second assignment, we had a black member in the ward. He was a sweet, humble man from the Ivory Coast who accepted the fact that he couldn’t hold the priesthood. He impressed me, even though he spoke very meager German and English. Later, in my fourth assignment, my companion and I were street contacting in the city one day and spoke with a blond-haired German farmer who told us we could visit him at his home. We bicycled out into the countryside east of town one day and found an ancient farmhouse with an attached barn and a heavy thatched roof. We knocked on the door, and Hans invited us in. He then introduced us to his wife, Josephine, who hailed from Ghana. What a shock. As it turned out, he was as spiritually alive as a piece of petrified wood. She was very interested in our message. So we began teaching them, and soon Josephine told us she had some friends who would be interested.
Her friends were Leo and his wife (whose name I can’t remember). They were from Nigeria, and Leo was attending the university in Hamburg. Leo was perhaps the most Christlike man I had ever met. I knew instantly that he was a better Christian than I would ever be. He was intensely interested in our message and soon developed a conviction that Joseph Smith was likely a prophet. This was 1977. We knew we were not supposed to actively proselytize blacks, so we were careful in our teaching. I counseled with the mission president a couple of times. I remember two things he said. First, “Elder Terry, I’m glad this is your problem and not mine.” I think he meant this simply as a vote of confidence that I would handle the situation with care. Second, “Whatever you do, don’t offend the Lord.” Well, that gave me something to think about.
We taught our three black investigators slowly and carefully, and we eventually reached the point where we had to tell them about the priesthood ban. I think the most difficult day of my mission was the day I had to tell Leo that he couldn’t hold the priesthood. He took it hard and wanted to know why. So we opened up the Pearl of Great Price and read a bit. We tried to explain how he and his people had been fence-sitters in the premortal world. We taught him about the blood of Cain that he obviously had running through his veins and the curse that attended it. In other words, we taught him all the standard LDS rationales for the priesthood ban. And everything we taught him was false.
Fast forward now a little more than a year into the future. It is June 1978, and I am teaching German-speaking missionaries at the MTC (it may have still been called the LTM at that point). One day, after teaching, I bounced on over to the teachers’ lounge. As I was entering the building, another teacher passed me and said, somewhat excitedly, “Have you heard the news? Blacks can have the priesthood.” Something in the way he said it made me think he was joking. I replied, “That’s not funny.” He insisted, “No, I’m serious. President Kimball’s had a revelation.” I ran out to my car and turned on the radio, and of course it was the only thing everyone was talking about. I sat there in that hot car and wept. I wept for the change, and I wept for Leo.
Fast forward again to 2007. I had been at BYU Studies for just over a year. I was reading Ed Kimball’s biography of his father’s years as Church president, Lengthen Your Stride. But I wasn’t reading the Deseret Book version. I was reading the longer account that was on the CD pocketed inside the back cover. BYU Studies had edited and prepared the CD. In that version, I found four chapters describing in great detail the history of the priesthood ban and the events surrounding the revelation. Ed had access to his father’s journals, so this was possibly the most complete and moving version of these events that will ever be written. I said to myself, “We need to get this out where people will read it.” I knew few would take time to read the longer version of the book on the CD. So I combined those four chapters into a long article, worked with Ed to make sure he was happy with it, and published it in BYU Studies, volume 47, number 2 (2008), as ”Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood.” It is an incredible account and is available free for download here.3
Over the years, as I have studied and contemplated the reason why it took so long for this change to come, I, along with others, have reached the conclusion that it did not come earlier because, essentially, the Church wasn’t ready for it. The members, not the Lord, were the reason for the delay. David O. McKay prayed about this issue frequently during his administration and was eventually told, “with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.”4 My own suspicion is that there were too many Mormons who shared the culturally embedded racism that I grew up with. It was only after the hard-fought gains made through the Civil Rights movement that much of this racism dissipated. My views changed because of Josephine and Leo. By 1978, enough Latter-day Saints were ready for the change that there were celebrations in the streets and many prayers of gratitude from Saints in all walks of life. The Church, as a whole, was ready in 1978.
So, what does this have to do with the other priesthood ban, the one preventing women from receiving the priesthood? Obviously there are differences. As mentioned in an earlier post, there is actually more positive scriptural basis (if interpreted a certain way) for denying blacks the priesthood. The scriptural evidence against ordaining women is mostly negative—in other words, an absence of evidence, although that absence is now being questioned by some very good scholarship.5 But women, like blacks, have had to wage a long battle to achieve the rights and privileges and equalities they now enjoy in American society. Society has changed dramatically, and we may soon even see a woman president.
Now, let me be perfectly clear on this. I am not advocating that women be ordained to the priesthood. I have no reason to do so. What I am advocating is that we keep an open mind, much as President Spencer W. Kimball did regarding blacks and the priesthood, and that we do our homework, just as President Kimball did. An article that every Latter-day Saint ought to read is historian Craig Harline’s 2013 Hickman Lecture, “What Happened to My Bell-Bottoms? How Things That Were Never Going to Change Have Sometimes Changed Anyway, and How Studying History Can Help Us Make Sense of It All,” delivered at BYU on March 14, 2013, and published in BYU Studies Quarterly, volume 52, number 4 (2013). It is available here. Harline puts change in historical context and shows just how wrong we usually are when we assume some things will never change.
As members of a church that believes in ongoing revelation, we should never hold the attitude that things can’t change. President Kimball showed us how flimsy that argument is. I often wonder how much earlier the 1978 revelation might have come if Church members had been more open to change. In this context, I believe the only appropriate answer to the question “How would you feel if the prophet announced that women will be able to receive the priesthood?” is “I would be delighted.” The answer “He would never announce such a change” is an attempt to restrict the prophet in ways the Lord might not choose to restrict him. Who are we to tell the Lord what he can and cannot do? Well, actually, I think we often do that unwittingly by assuming we know more than we do. And sometimes we tie his hands with our inflexibility. I have come to the point where I would welcome such a change, if it came about through the appropriate channels. As these posts have demonstrated, I hope, our understanding of priesthood (and the larger issue of authority) is not perfect. These are complex topics that still hold many inconsistencies and perplexities. We don’t have it all figured out, even though we sometimes speak as if we do. Bruce R. McConkie and others were quite certain about what the Lord would not do regarding blacks and the priesthood. He had to eat his words. We should be more wise.
1. Apparently there was one notable exception to this rule. Jane Manning James, a black member known well to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young was permitted to perform baptisms for the dead, but was repeatedly denied the opportunity to receive her endowment. See John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), 229.
2. See, for instance, D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 36–37.
3. This is a temporary link, available while our website is undergoing a major reconstruction. In a few weeks, a new, sleek, fast website should be available. At that point, you may have to search for the article from our home page,, using the issue number (47.2).
4. Church architect Richard Jackson, quoted in Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 104.
5. See, for instance, Cory Crawford, “The Struggle for Female Authority in Biblical and Mormon Theology,” Dialogue 48, no. 2 (2015): 1–66.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Authority (Part 10: Priestesses)

Despite the absence of women in positions of authority in either the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants, women do indeed have authority, as indicated earlier, in both the Church and the family. We just do not have a name for this authority. It is not “moral authority,” as was recently suggested.1 And it is not priesthood, because women, in spite of institutional attempts to put a positive spin on the matter, do not hold the priesthood. It is, however, an official form of organizational authority. We just do not know what to call it.
At the organization of the Relief Society, Joseph Smith seemed to be attempting to broaden his concept of priesthood authority so that it included women. Perhaps he would not have ordained women to the priesthood, but he was certainly seeking to establish a women’s organization after the pattern of the male priesthood. According to the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Joseph taught “that the Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy—Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day—as in Paul’s day—that it is the privilege of each member to live long.”2 Unfortunately, we do not know how Joseph would have set up this kingdom of female priests (or priestesses) over the long run, and his successors have retreated from the language he employed and even some of the practices he encouraged, which leaves us today with an authority dilemma that seems unsolvable.
One of the practices Joseph specifically approved was the female laying on of hands to heal the sick. “Respecting the female laying on hands, he further remark’d, there could be no devils in it if God gave his sanction by healing—that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water—that it is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal’d by the administration.”3
Sometimes we use loaded terms without really understanding the implications of their meaning. One of these is priestess, which appears today primarily in the context of temple rituals. According to Cannon, Dahl, and Welch, “By 1843, the temple’s full import and design seem to have crystallized in the Prophet’s teachings. The doctrines of sealing and of becoming kings and queens, priests and priestesses were often discussed.”4 The expression “kings and queens, priests and priestesses” will be familiar to anyone who has received his or her endowment in the temple. The implication, however, seems to slip past us: namely, if we teach that women will someday be priestesses, we mean, by the very definition of the term, that they will also receive the priesthood. Just as you cannot be a priest without having priesthood, you also cannot be a priestess without having priesthood. Linguistically, the relationship is similar to parent and parenthood. If you are a parent, you also experience parenthood. Therefore, according to what is taught in the temple, at some point in the hereafter, women will not be banned from holding the priesthood. This implication of our temple terminology should give us pause.
President Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth President of the Church, stated, “It is within the privilege of the sisters of this Church to receive exaltation in the kingdom of God and receive authority and power as queens and priestesses.”5 Taken literally, this means that in the celestial kingdom, women will have priesthood, or “priestesshood,” if we want to be precise. They will be priestesses. But what does this even mean? What does a priestess do that is different from what a priest does? To my knowledge, this office has never been defined, which is too often the case with words we use frequently and simply assume everyone understands. This assumption breaks down, however, when we start asking basic questions.
At a minimum, since these two sets of titles—king and queen, priest and priestess—are listed as pairs, we can probably assume that they are parallel in meaning. Kings and queens rule, priests and priestesses officiate in rituals, or ordinances, perhaps in a manner similar to what we see in the temple. So, do women have the priesthood in this life? In the temple, they seem to, although there is no ordination involved. Of course, we have no evidence that prophets such as Abinadi and Alma received authority through ordination, so ordaining may be only one way in which authority can be bestowed. In our modern context, ordination by the laying on of hands is the generally approved pattern, but perhaps we should ask if someone can have authority to officiate in a sacred ordinance without having been ordained to do so. It appears this is exactly what is happening in the temple. But for consistency’s sake, perhaps we ought to rethink this aberration.
Traditionally, a priest (or a priestess) is someone who stands between God and his children by officiating in sacred rituals. Women in the temple are thus functioning as de facto priestesses without what we (perhaps incorrectly?) consider a necessity—ordination. Should this oversight be corrected? Since ordination is considered necessary in the modern Church to exercise priesthood authority, should female temple workers be ordained? Temple workers are set apart for their callings, but only men receive a priesthood ordination in order to perform the duties of this priestly calling. A man who does not hold the priesthood cannot officiate in temple ordinances; in fact, he cannot even enter the temple. Women, by contrast, are not only permitted to enter the temple, but they can also officiate in priesthood ordinances without an ordination. So, the logical question is, if women will be priestesses in the hereafter and will receive, we must assume, an ordination to that office, why are they not permitted to receive this ordination here, since many of them are already acting as de facto priestesses? This question has not been answered satisfactorily. A related question has also never been answered: If women can officiate in temple ordinances through the priesthood keys held by the temple president, why could not an unordained but righteous man do the same?
1. See D. Todd Christofferson, “The Moral Force of Women,” Ensign 43, no. 11 (2013): 29–32.
2. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 21, March 30, 1842,
3. Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, 35, April 28, 1842.
4. Donald Q. Cannon, Larry E. Dahl, and John W. Welch, “The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith: Priesthood, the Word of God, and the Temple,” Ensign 19, no. 2 (February 1989): 11.
5. Joseph Fielding Smith, “Relief Society—an Aid to the Priesthood,” Relief Society Magazine, January 1959, 5–6.