In this second discussion we are asked to to know the history. What follows reads like a graduate level analysis of historical points. I would argue they don’t sufficiently know the background behind the history they cite, but there are many good points here.
I would note that I’m the one of all of us women here that actually has talked about giving blessings by my faith in Christ. These blessings that I’ve voiced have been few, like seriously few. I almost always ask someone who holds the priesthood to voice blessings. But I know I can bless, and have done so.
There are four components to this discussion:
1) The Relief Society Minutes, where a) Emma is given the right to preside (a surprise to younger Mormons); b) Joseph talks of making the Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day, as in Paul’s day; and c) Joseph explicitly talks about women giving healing blessings and casting out devils.
2) A paper by Linda King Newell in the Silver Edition of Sunstone tracing the history of the migration from Joseph’s teachings regarding blessings and today’s practices where folks presume it is forbidden due to Joseph Fielding Smith’s memo to Belle Spafford in 1946, where he says the authorities have ruled washing and anointing the sick by women is permissible, but they think it is better to send for the Elders.
3) Greg Prince’s delightful interview of Chieko Okasaki published in 2012 (Dialogue).
4) A 15-minute video about women and the priesthood that speaks to various things, including how the once-independent assets of the Relief Society were absorbed by the Church.
Any man is better than any woman?
Starting with the video, I’ll note one portion that struck me particularly. The narrator paraphrases Joseph F. Smith at 12:48, where he says “The power is not given to the woman to act independent of the man, nor is it given to the man to act independent of Christ.” She then proceeds to grossly misinterpret what Smith meant by this statement, in my opinion, indicating she understands that women (plural) are not to act independent of the man, whereas men are only limited by the infinite power of Jesus Christ. In the context where I and many reading this will know the original wording from, I have never taken those words to mean that any man can rule over all women or that men are completely free to do whatever they might please. Although other statements in the video are likely not as grossly distorted, this one bit is a really important piece to be getting wrong.
There is also the history of financial adjustment, from a financially independent Relief Society to those assets being aligned under the common assets. While irritating, this is more about the underlying fiscal philosophy behind the law of consecration and foreseeable inattentional blindness when a non-diverse group of people administers to a diverse population.
The video attributes to malice what can be sufficiently explained by well-intentioned inadequacy. Or in certain cases (thinking of a situation from my youth), ignorant selfishness.
Ironically, this video highlights that there have been times in the past when women had roles where they administered, without requiring priesthood ordination. None of the historical roles mentioned for women necessarily required the form of priesthood some women are demanding.
Women are permitted to perform blessings
Going to the history of blessings, I am entirely encouraged that the last official statement in fact does confirm that women are permitted to bless the sick. Looking at the timing of this statement, this was in the immediate aftermath of World War II, where the men who had fought were returning home, only to find that the jobs and duties they had previously occupied had been filled by women in their absence. It became a matter of patriotism for the women to vacate those jobs and make them available to the men.
Many of those at the head of the Church now were young men during those times. It has been clear from their statements regarding women and the workforce that they still use the language of those days, where women were in direct competition with men for jobs.
Getting back to Joseph Fielding Smith’s memo to Belle Spafford, if read in the context of men coming home from war and finding the women no longer even looked to them to bless their own families, one can see why he might have asked her to encourage the women to refrain from blessing one another (though the practice was permissible) and look to the Elders for blessings.
In my world, the question is often “Is this strategic guidance, or tactical guidance?” Though one can see a long-term migration, I submit that the memo that was taken as the death knell of female blessings might have only been a tactical suggestion given the fragile state of men in the immediate aftermath of a terrible war. At what point subsequent to 1946 would the leadership have perceived a tactical need to encourage the women to resume the forgotten practice of performing blessings?
I imagine that the permissible instances of washing and annointing the sick would be like men administering the sacrament in their homes – an activity that, while possible, would only be conducted with the permission of the presiding priesthood authority. However it is interesting that Joseph Fielding Smith says nothing of blessings of comfort voiced by virtue of faith in Christ. I would actually really appreciate additional guidance on when these blessings could be legitimately performed. Not that I expect that have any need to perform such a blessing in the future. Blessings such as these, though, performed perhaps on the head of a sister who has been abused or raped, are not the kind of thing one anticipates. Again, though we in our day associate blessings with priesthood, there is nothing in this history that says women required priesthood ordination to administer blessings.
Relief Society, rev. 1842
It is, in my opinion, entirely crucial to understand what faced Joseph and Emma during those initial months of Relief Society. They knew there were sexual predators about, and that the predators included many men in high callings. In some instances, the women who had been misled into illicit sexual activity with the predators were also likely infected with venereal disease. And it is almost certain Joseph knew that at least one doctor (Dr. Bennett) was one of the predators. 1
Given the sexual predators, it should not be surprising in the least that Emma was given full autonomy, without reason to “report” to any of the men who might secretly be one of the predators. The women were freed to look to females, again a safety against having a woman go to a man who might be a predator.
This was also before Joseph stood up the Quorum of the Anointed, where he would introduce the washings and anointings to not only men, but also to women (a shocking thing in that day). Obviously, this was before the Nauvoo temple was available, so things were taught and done in the early Relief Society that we now primarily say and do in temples. I’m pretty sure this stuff is in any of a number of books on the subject of temples, but I usually just go to the temple rather than read about it, so I can’t cite a reference off the top of my head.
The society of female priests arguable exists today, unseen. All the rest occurred without any of the women in 1842 being ordained to priesthood.
Chieko, the Beloved, and Cultural Change
I adored the discussion between Greg Prince and Chieko Okasaki. My father was the first missionary convert baptized in Taiwan, so much of what Chieko had to say about initial bigotry and doctrinal stupidity among Utahns was no shock to me. While Chieko was married to a Japanese man, my father married a white woman. My Chinese aunt married a white man. So my family histories include a double portion of stupid Utah bigotry towards Asians in those days before the Supreme Court case that ended anti-miscegenation legislation.
But Utahns weren’t the vanguard of anti-Asian laws and practices. That particular bigotry was born in 1878 California to make sure Chinese laborers (imported to build the railroads) didn’t inter-marry with whites, building on the existing 1850 California ban on intermarriage between blacks and whites. When California rescinded anti-miscegenation legislation in the late 1940s, they didn’t bother advocating for the entire rest of the west to strike these laws from the books, other states they had strong-armed into legislating away the possibility of mixed race marriages lest California be faced with honoring such unions by reciprocity.
Much of Chieko Okasaki’s experiences dealing with ignorant Mormons can be viewed most accurately through the lens of Americans skittish about all minorities, particularly “Japs” who had bombed Pearl Harbor roughly a decade earlier. From that perspective, it is amazing that Chieko was in fact embraced by the most prominent citizens of her Utah community, including Ezra Taft Benson.
The focus of those agitating for female ordination, however, is on Chieko’s description of a) development of the initial manual intended for both Priesthood and Relief Society and b) presentation of the Proclamation on the Family. These particular histories demonstrate graphically the communication screw ups that can occur when men administer to the entire Church without thinking to consult the women.
Chieko, an amazing teacher, had been developing new manuals for Relief Society. At the same time, it was decided to create a common manual for the third hour, to be shared by the Priesthood Quorums and the Relief Society. No one thought to mention this common manual to anyone in Relief Society, a staggering oversight. The vision, to have men and women share the same manual, is great. And given that the lessons are adapted to each unique class by teachers who are presumably seeking inspiration, lacks can be compensated for. Obviously, once folks realized the lack of coordination existed, subsequent manuals have be developed by a committee including both men and women.
Regarding the Proclamation on the Family, none of the auxiliary presidencies were informed the document was being refined. Which is better than what I thought, hearing it read at the General Woman’s meeting. The Proclamation was so obviously not aligned with the talks given by the Relief Society (they’d been talking about female literacy) that I had suspected it came as a complete surprise to them as well as to us. So it hadn’t been a complete surprise, merely a document that had not benefited from review and comment from the women in leadership positions. While it is a bit rough, my perception of the Proclamation improved when I read the Southern Baptist Convention Article on the Family, the product of a year’s effort by a diverse committee.
Chieko’s stories remind us that there is much yet to do, to take advantage of all the potential brilliance of the diverse leadership of the Church. But I don’t see her advocating female ordination as the required or even desired means to achieve that end. This is actually quite encouraging – this means unfortunate patterns of inadequate communication can be changed with a mere memo, rather than necessitating a doctrinal modification that isn’t supported by scripture.
Of Cholera and Caution
Since my ancestry along one line traces back to John Taylor, third president of the Church, I’ve made a particular study of the records of his dealings with others. When the Saints were crossing the plains, John Taylor suggested that the Saints establish settlements along the trail, to grow crops for the Mormons traveling to Utah and reduce the dangers of the long trek through unsettled stretches.
John wouldn’t have known about cholera, and how that disease would devastate the overland travelers. Had Mormon settlements stretched along the Platte, they would almost certainly have been blamed for the deaths. With the large and unforeseeable influx of individuals traveling the Platte en route to the California gold fields, the situation would have become explosive.
Brigham ignored John Taylor’s suggestion, to the cautious Englishman’s dismay. As brusque as Brigham was, this meant the Saints were in the Salt Lake Valley, an important stop along the way, where orphans of those killed by cholera would get dumped before the forty-niners attempted the wagon trail across the Sierra Madres, a wagon trail that had been forged by returning soldiers from the Mormon Battalion (The Holmes 2-Thompson Company, en route to Salt Lake).
There are ways to look at the various developments and see the graces that attend us because of supposedly prejudicial actions from the past. For example, even if the Teachings of Presidents of the Church manuals weren’t initially conceived and developed by including sisters in leadership positions, is it not a wonderful thing that men and women do learn from the same curriculum during that third hour?
Those concerned about the loss of female autonomy with the absorption of Relief Society monies and responsibilities fail to mention the huge amount of effort associated with earning those monies – the bazaars and bake sales and musicals. The money earned at those events often came from the sisters themselves, unwilling to let another sister’s goods go unpurchased, knowing how much effort had gone into the acrylic grapes, refrigerator magnets, Santa Jars made from goblets, hand-made Christmas cards, and intricate crocheted shawls.
Even though the Church has urged women to remember their role as nurturers, by eliminating the mini-fiefdom that was the Relief Society of my mother, women were freed to become the wage earners our days have demanded they be, in so many cases. Ironically, in many cases, Mormon women now earn money by making crafts sold online via sites like Etsy, using that creative spirit to gladden a wider audience, and doubtless paying their tithes to the general fund of the Church, supporting the full variety of efforts the Church engages in.
Detractors from the movement to consolidate activities don’t mention the three-hour block associated with correlation. They may not be aware that a smaller percentage of women under the earlier system participated in Relief Society. It was considered separate from Church, if an important aspect of the female experience. However the old Sunday meeting structure meant that many women skipped sacrament meeting to fix dinner for their families. So men, often without their wives, would attend Sacrament meeting with those children the father could get to go. Loss of autonomy for Relief Society was part of a massive realignment of meetings, budgets, and other aspects of Mormon religious life, a realignment that served the unique needs of that time, increasing female participation in the actual religious life of the community.
Historian, learn your history
Those critical of the treatment of women in the Mormon Church remind us of historical points of which many members of the Church have not been aware. But they neglect to discuss aspects of that history that fail to support their summum bonum of demanding priesthood ordination.
Does our history as Mormon women promise greater things than many of us have experienced? I suppose so, since some don’t appear to have known the empowerment and joy it’s been my privilege to experience.
But is teaching surprised women to be actively unhappy with the Church going to produce the desired change? I say no.
I suggest we be like Cheiko Okasaki, embracing the gospel with all our hearts, using our brilliance to support the Church, earning the trust of our audience and only then speaking the honest words that effect change.
- Formal testimony against the primary evil-doers was presented to the High Council in May 1842, excerpts of which were published in the Times and Seasons in May 1844 in a last-ditch effort to warn folks against some of those who were participating in publishing The Expositor. ↩
- Yes, as in Johnathan Harriman Holmes, widower of Marietta Holmes and public husband of Joseph’s plural wife, Elvira Annie Cowles. ↩