This is a guest post by Michael Davidson.
On Friday, an essay entitled “Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women” was published on lds.org, and the reactions from some quarters of the internet were entirely predictable. One of the most common complaints I’ve seen is that the Church is claiming that the word “ordain” doesn’t mean “ordain.” The most cogent of these observations came courtesy of April Young Bennett, who argues:
The authors attempt to explain away the ordinations of female Relief Society officers in Nauvoo by stating that “Mormons sometimes used the term ordain in a broad sense, often interchangeably with set apart.” Maybe they did sometimes, but not in this case. In the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society, Joseph Smith explained that Emma Smith did not need to be ordained at that meeting as she had already been ordained previously, just like men who have already been ordained in the modern church do not need to be ordained again to take on new callings. Instead, Emma Smith received a blessing that is similar to the modern practice of “setting apart” while Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney received ordinations.
In support of her assertions, Ms. Bennett provides a link to the minutes of the Nauvoo Relief Society from the Joseph Smith Papers Project website. It is instructive to read exactly what was recorded about the ordinations of Sarah M. Cleveland and Elizabeth Ann Whitney.
Elder Taylor was then appointed to ordain the Counsellors— he laid his hands on the head of Mrs Cleveland and ordain’d her to be a Counsellor to the Elect Lady, even Mrs. Emma Smith, to counsel, and assist her in all things pertaining to her office &c.
Elder T. then laid his hands on the head of Mrs. Whitney and ordain’d her to be a Counsellor to Mrs. Smith, the Prest. of the Institutio[n]— with all the privileges pertaining to the office &c.
He then laid his hands on the head of Mrs. Smith and blessed her, and confirm’d upon her all the blessings which have been confer’d on her, that she might be a mother in Israel and look to the wants of the needy, and be a pattern of virtue; and possess all the qualifications necessary for her to stand and preside and dignify her Office, to teach the females those principles requisite for their future usefulness.
Each of Mrs. Cleveland and Mrs. Whitney were ordained to be counselors. No mention is made of priesthood office, nor was there any mention of the conferral of any priesthood to Emma Smith, Sarah Cleveland or Elizabeth Whitney. Which leads to the main point of this post: “ordain” has never meant conferral of either the Aaronic Priesthood or the Melchizedek Priesthood in the Church.